Doctor Strange

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stulhbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton

Director: Scott Derrickson

Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill


2016 saw a continuation of the superhero trend that is dominating Hollywood right now with at least five major movies being released prior to Doctor Strange. In this kind of climate it’d be difficult for any one of these films to distinguish themselves from all the others. On one hand we did get Deadpool which won audiences over with its R-rated content and rule breaking but we also got X-Men: Apocalypse, a half-hearted, generic rehash of its previous instalments. Although Marvel is certainly guilty of following formulas that can get tiring at times, their films have mostly succeeded in this regard due to the different elements and genres they’ve been able to bring to their cinematic universe. Over the last couple of years for example they’ve made an espionage thriller in The Winter Soldier, a space opera in Guardians of the Galaxy and a heist movie in Ant-Man. In keeping with this tradition Doctor Strange depicts a genre unlike any other seen in the Marvel franchise: the mind-trip movie.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly successful and arrogant surgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. His former girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), also a surgeon, tries to help him move on but Strange is determined to restore his hands through risky and experimental procedures. His obsession soon leads him to Kamar-Taj in Nepal where he is taken in by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic sorceress. There Strange discovers the existence of astral planes and other dimensions and is taught the teachings of the mystic arts. However Strange is quickly forced into action when a rogue sorcerer called Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens the Sanctums that the Ancient One’s order is sworn to protect. With the help of friend and mentor Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange must master his abilities and defeat Kaecilius before he can complete a ritual that threatens their very existence.

When viewing Doctor Strange as a mind-trip action movie, the most obvious comparison to be drawn is Inception. Like the Nolan movie, Doctor Strange contains many action set pieces that bend and distort reality in spectacular ways. When the sorcerers enter the Sanctum, all bets are off as they freely defy the laws of nature in their mystic battles. Gravity becomes subjective, perception is skewed and time is not absolute. The film also undertakes a slightly more philosophical approach than the typical Marvel movie as Strange must learn to master his own failings before he can master the art of sorcery. He never does lose his arrogance, on the contrary he learns that arrogance is part of what makes him a great sorcerer, but rather learns to live and fight for a cause that is greater than himself. This arc is not unlike that of Tony Stark in the earlier Marvel films, but Strange has enough of its own identity both in its protagonist and as a film that it doesn’t feel like a simple retread.

Benedict Cumberbatch (in keeping with the law which holds that he must be in everything) plays the newest hero in the MCU canon proficiently with both humour and gravitas. As he portrays Strange in his narcissism, cockiness and resoluteness, it is near impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. The whitewashing that took place with the Ancient One is rather glaring (especially in a movie about a white man adopting and mastering an Eastern discipline and surpassing all of his ethnically variant peers in the process) but to Swinton’s credit nobody can play otherworldly quite like her. Although this film continues the Marvel tradition of underwriting its generic non-Loki antagonists, I found Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius to be one of the least generic ones to date. I cannot for the life of me remember what his motivation was but I do remember him being intimidating and clashing well with Strange in their scenes together. There’s also quite a fun character to be found in Strange’s cloak, very much in the vein of the magic carpet in Aladdin.

I can understand that someone with superhero fatigue might find the whole ‘origin story’ aspect of this film tiring, but for me Doctor Strange has a lot going for it. I like that the climax for instance did not boil down to a punching and kicking contest. Strange’s triumph is instead a result of his ingenuity and occurs in quite a clever and creative way. I also like Strange as a character, I liked the new dimension that this film added to the Marvel universe and, above all, I enjoyed the movie’s superb, psychedelic visuals (which pay off especially well when seen in 3D). Those who watch this film looking for weaknesses are certainly going to find them. The whitewashing is evident, McAdams’ role is little more than a token love interest and the typical Marvel formulas and tie-ins can be obtrusive. Still there is a lot to enjoy and a lot that is different from all the other blockbusters we’ve seen in recent years. Doctor Strange is a feast for the eyes that contains all the thrills and humour that Marvel is known for and was a relief to watch after a summer of disappointing blockbusters.

★★★★

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Triple 9

Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Matt Cook


Whenever I watch a film, the single most fundamental thing I require before I can regard it as a success is for the film to give me something that I can take away. Personally I don’t buy into the theory that film is a means of escaping reality. Instead I believe that film is a means of understanding reality. Even if the film in question is simply mindless entertainment, the very fact that I’m watching and enjoying it means that I need some mindless entertainment in my life. Therefore I need the film to actually give me something, whether it be entertainment, insight or emotion, that I can take with me into the real world. If I don’t feel like I’m actually getting anything from the film, then what’s the point of watching it? This is where Triple 9 let me down. Because I never felt attached to any of these characters, I found myself wholly indifferent to their fates. When it was all said and done then, I found the entire experience to be ultimately pointless.

After completing a major bank heist, a group of criminals are blackmailed by an incarcerated Russian mobster’s wife, Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), to carry out another job. This crew includes career criminal Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), computer whiz Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), and also two corrupt cops called Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.). The crew decides to organise a plan that involves a Triple 9, which means sending out a distress call for a downed officer as a means of distracting the major police units. Marcus suggests using his new partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) as the victim, a cop who has recently started to notice something off about his partner and has started to ask too many questions. Things get complicated even further when Chris’ uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson), a veteran detective, starts investigating the original heist.

While writing the above summary I was painstakingly reminded of how little I cared about the plot. Had I been unable to consult IMDb for information I would not have remembered half of the film’s plot points or characters. The only part of the story I can even remember with any real clarity was its wildly unsatisfying ending. Most of what came before in the build-up to that climax simply didn’t register with me. The film was so dense and hasty in its storytelling that I never found the time or the space to actually get drawn into what was happening. Characters were never introduced or established, they just appeared and would then disappear just as quickly. Right from the start the film drops us straight into the action without allowing us time to actually get a grip on what’s happening and allowing ourselves to get invested. It was a bit like taking a random book, abridging the first three or four chapters into half a dozen pages and then expecting the reader to make sense of whatever remains.

Keeping up with a haphazard story becomes even more problematic when you’re unable develop an attachment to any of the characters. The film provides little help in this regard by ensuring we learn as little as possible about any of them. Of the characters actually taking part in the heist, the only one who is revealed to have any sort of motivation is Michael, whose son is effectively being held hostage by Irina. Even then the film barely devotes any time towards defining or demonstrating their relationship. In truth the only reason I’m even able to remember any of these characters is by virtue of the actors playing them. I don’t remember the Welch brothers due to their arcs within the story, I remember them because they happen to be played by Darryl Dixon and Jesse Pinkman. Apart from one terrific cameo by Michael Kenneth Williams (seriously, I would much rather watch a movie about his character than any other in this film), I cannot recall a single character that made this film worth watching.

There are some technically good things about this movie. The cast is made up of some very strong actors, the cinematography is fairly decent and there are some well-executed action scenes. Despite all that however, I’m giving this movie a one-star rating because it failed to do the single most important thing that a film needs to do. It failed to leave any sort of an impact on me. As soon as the film was over I felt nothing about what had transpired over the past two hours and had forgotten most of what happened by the time I got home. I don’t even dislike the film; even a negative reaction would still be a reaction. I feel nothing for this film. This film took two hours of my life and left me with nothing to show for it. Triple 9 may not be a terrible movie but, for me at least, it is worthless to the point that the distinction hardly even matters.