Doctor Strange – Film Review

doctor-strange-1

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.

doctor-strange-2

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.

A Bigger Splash – Film Review

A Bigger Splash

World-famous rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is recovering from throat surgery on a small Italian island with her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) when onto the island and into their lives bursts her former producer and beau Harry (Ralph Fiennes) with his recently discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Trapped together in a luxurious villa the scene is set for jealousy, sex, and resentment as tensions of all kinds brew between a quartet of troubled characters; a ticking time bomb of hormones simmering in the heat.

Swinton is a chameleon as an actor and it is always a surprise to see what kind of character she will be playing. In A Bigger Splash Swinton plays it incredibly low-key as she tackles the role of a mostly mute singer who quietly oozes cool and sexuality. Swinton playing a more reserved character allows for Ralph Fiennes to go large as her bombastic ex. Rather than be cool and subtly sexual Fiennes is giving it his all, shouting from the rooftops and blasting sexual energy towards anyone foolish enough to cross his path. Before Fiennes arrives everything is serene but once he enters the film all is noise and energy. Fiennes is pure dad dancing, pelvis grinding, obnoxious energy and has never been better. He blasts into the calm poolside living with an unsettling jolt last seen produced by Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. What a great double bill those films would make.

A Bigger Splash 2

Completing the quartet are Dakota Johnson as Harry’s daughter and Matthias Schoenaerts as Marianne’s partner and Harry’s former bestie. Both are more difficult to read that their counterparts as they observe the actions of others and quietly plot away in their heads. Johnson gives an infinitely more complex performance that Fifty Shades allowed and a sexier one too. I realise I’ve mentioned sex in every other sentence in this review but it runs at the heart of the film. While the actual sex in the film is minimal it is sex that drives every character’s motivations. It is what they are pursuing, resenting, or trying to avoid.

Luca Guadagnino’s direction gives us a film that is positively humming with energy. To watch the film is to have your pace racing. His camera moves around with great inventiveness and the music is at times playful and others timeless. Most importantly he has made a film that is a complete joy to watch. He has dialled up Fiennes to 11 and it is this performance that makes or break the film. Watching A Bigger Splash was pure enjoyment and admiration; a fine two hours spent in the dark of the cinema.

A Bigger Splash is a big, bold, brash, funny and shocking drama.

A Bigger Splash is in cinemas now.

Check Yourself Before You Trainwreck Yourself

Trainwreck

I loved Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck. It was painfully funny, genuinely moving, and featured an almost unrecognisable Tilda Swinton. There is so much to love and yet… and yet… Before I went to see Trainwreck someone mentioned that perhaps the film had a surprising number of jokes about race and sexuality for a romantic comedy about a straight white couple.

Just like that the seed was planted.

I have a confession to make. I am privileged. I took the quiz on CheckMyPrivilege.com and scored 170 earning myself the title of “Shitlord”. I am a white able-bodied heterosexual cis-male atheist who was born in a prosperous Western country and as time goes by I learn more and more how lucky that makes me. This means that I do often having to stop and think about aspects of media that would otherwise pass me by. The main result of this has been an exploration of feminism and learning to understand all sorts of new phrases like “patriarchy”, “the male gaze”, and “victim blaming”. It makes certain types of film a lot harder to enjoy but ultimately is a good thing.

Trainwreck is arguably a huge feminist success story. In the lead role is a woman who enjoys sex, has a decent job, and talks to other women about subjects other than men. Good stuff. We have a winner. Let’s move along now. Oh crap there’s still racism and homophobia to deal with.

Trainwreck 2

With my mind tainted by the idea that Trainwreck might not be completely kosher I couldn’t watch the film without each joke about race or sexuality sticking out. I kept a tally and reached a count of 16 jokes in total that boiled down to either “Ha! You’re gay!” or “Ha! You’re black!”. As I said before this is made all the more jarring considering the film was about a white woman falling in love with a white man. That’s not to say the cast is entirely white; Schumer’s love interest, played by Bill Hader, has a best friend who just happens to be black (and LeBron James) but the race jokes still find their way in.

Just to be clear I am not saying Trainwreck is ground zero for all racist and homophobic comedy. I’m not even saying that Trainwreck is either homophobic or racist. What am I saying then? I guess I am asking questions; I am wondering whether a comedy can exist that not only shows feminist qualities but does so without turning race or sexuality into cheap jokes. Does comedy need a target to be funny? Can you have a joke without someone being the butt? Amy Schumer is an excellent comedian and writer and has created a film bursting at the seams with jokes that will make you weep. Could it have done without those 16 jokes? I’d say so. Am I being over-sensitive? Perhaps.

Go and see Trainwreck and judge for yourself. It really is a magnificent comedy.

We Need to Talk About Kevin – LFF Review

Adapted from Lionel Shriver’s hit novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin focusses on Eva (Tilda Swinton) as she struggles with memories of her son from hell and deals with the aftermath of his violent actions. From birth, Kevin (Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell and more) favours his father (John C. Reilly) and treats his mother with extreme disdain. If you’ve ever wanted to see a toddler express pure contempt, this is your film.

In the film’s opening sequence the ratcheting sound of a garden sprinkler sets the tone for the film. Resembling the ticking of a clock gathering pace as the camera slowly moves towards an open patio with curtain billowing, it creates a sense of tension and embeds the idea of the film building towards a devastating climax. This simple shot had me unsettled from the very beginning and the film didn’t relent until the credits rolled and I could escape from its hold. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a powerful beast.

Poor Eva has a traumatic time throughout, unable to earn the love of her son and later, unable to escape the crimes he has committed. In the earlier scenes flashes of red are scattered throughout, be it a red kettle in the kitchen or a stripe along the wall. In the present day the red becomes overwhelming, from a wall of tomato soup or paint thrown over Eva’s house. Numerous times we watch Eva trying to wash the red stuff away, never able to get the blood spilled by her son off her hands. Lynne Ramsay’s use of colour may not be subtle but it is beyond effective. As a director Ramsay does not glorify the violence in the scenes, instead emphasising the emotional turmoil as expressed by her excellent cast.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a fantastic film, brilliantly put together by Lynne Ramsay and with perfect performances from Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. Be warned though, it will either put you off having children or if it’s too late, prevent you from teaching them archery or buying them a guinea pig.

We Need to Talk About Kevin screens again today at 14:45 in the London Film Festival and is in UK cinemas this Friday 21st October 2011.