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.

★★★★

Advertisements

Spotlight

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci

Director: Tom McCarthy

Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer


It is tough for me to review a film like Spotlight because, as I look back at it, I’m forced to ask myself whether my feelings towards it were inspired by its subject matter or by the film itself. When a film tackles a controversial subject of this importance it can be tricky to work out whether you really do like the film or if you only think you like it because you feel like you are supposed to. There is no doubt that Spotlight has an important story to tell, the question is whether or not it stands out as a film. When I compared it to some of the year’s other releases I realised that Spotlight is not actually that remarkable in terms of filmmaking. It doesn’t have the energy of Steve Jobs, the creativity of The Big Short or the atmosphere of Bridge of Spies. And yet I got a stronger reaction from watching Spotlight than I did from any of those three films. I think this has less to do with the subject matter though and more to do with the story, characters and dialogue.

The film is set in 2001 and tells the true story of the reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the child molestation scandal. The head of the Spotlight team conducting the investigation is Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), a veteran reporter on friendly terms with some of the most influential Catholics in Boston. The members of his team include Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all of whom are deeply affected by this story for their own personal reasons. Overlooking this investigation is the new Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) and long-time Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). Between them the Spotlight team discover that the instances of child molestation carried out by Catholic priests extends far beyond a few bad apples and start to suspect that the men at the very top could very well be aware of what’s happening and are even enabling it.

Although the directing in this film is not particularly creative or innovative (and certainly not worthy of an Oscar nomination), I think that Spotlight is a showcase of how great writing can make a great film. The construction of the film’s narrative is so methodical and intricate that there isn’t a single faulty step in its telling. Every scene and every conversation that takes place is employed to progress the story and does so fluidly and captivatingly. Even though the subject of the film is complex and challenging, the story itself is straightforward and upfront. The film gets straight to the point and goes exactly where it needs to go. The viewer is able to become invested through the characters as they uncover this conspiracy piece by piece and are all personally affected by what they discover. There is a directness and matter-of-factness to the film’s approach that makes it all feel downright and true and therefore honest. The drama is never overplayed and is never exaggerated. Through smooth pacing and subtlety the film allows its story to play out naturally and every moment of drama that does occur is completely earned.

Spotlight could also very well have the best ensemble of the year. There isn’t an individual that I can single out because the strength of their performances is that they work best as a collective. If I had to pick out a favourite though it would probably have to be Stanley Tucci as the tired yet dedicated lawyer who has seen too many injustices and empty promises in his time. Each character in this film is fully rounded and are all challenged by what they uncover. Robinson is a born-and-bred Boston man who discovers that he didn’t know his city or its people as well as he thought he did. Rezendes is horrified by the corruption of an institution he believed to be good and just. Pfeiffer is deeply affected by the trauma of the victims and the impenitence of the offenders. Carroll is a family man who cannot help but wonder whether he can keep his own children safe. The actors play their roles so authentically and candidly that they completely disappear into their characters.

It is tough to set aside a story’s social relevance and to assess a film like this purely as a film. I know that the film had a profound affect on me. The question is whether this is because I was already worked up by the film’s notorious subject matter or because I was moved by the film’s story. On reflection I think I have to side with the film. As I played it over in my head there was one particular sequence that stuck with me which involved a children’s choir singing ‘Silent Night’. After everything that had come before, that particular scene struck me like a hammer. After all of the corruption, tragedy and depravity that had been uncovered, the film chose to drive it all home by contrasting it with an image of what had been lost in the middle of it all. It was an image of such heartbreaking innocence that I couldn’t help but be moved. Spotlight is such a slow-burner that it captivates you without you even realising it. It is a marvellously written film with an excellent ensemble and an emotional and powerful payoff that is well worth the wait.

★★★★★