Doctor Strange (2016) – Movie Review

dr strange

“Doctor Strange,” in my opinion, is Marvel’s first step into the uncharted. Sure, “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a bold undertaking, but the concept of gods and aliens had already been explored in “Thor” and “The Avengers.” “Ant Man” may have given us a glimpse into the Quantum Realm, but at the end of the day, it was little more than a comedic heist film with a taste of “Honey I Shrunk the Kids.”

Helmed by horror director Scott Derrickson, “Doctor Strange” invites us into Marvel’s world of magic and mysticism. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Doctor Stephen Strange, an arrogant neurosurgeon acclaimed worldwide for his medical achievements. After losing the use of his hands in a car accident, Strange desperately searches the globe for anything that will give him back what made him great. Strange’s search leads him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer who introduces him to the mystic arts and sets him on the path to becoming the “Sorcerer Supreme.”

While magic itself is a new element in the Marvel cinematic universe, “Doctor Strange” is still, at its core, a superhero origin story, meaning that all of Marvel’s tropes are ever present. There are several attempts at humor. Some of them work; some of them don’t, and the villain, albeit portrayed very well by Mads Mikkelsen, is once again underdeveloped.

In spite of this, Marvel made an ambitious move with this film, one that I believe paid off in dividends.

The bizarre visuals, dialogue and character interactions of “Doctor Strange” would not work without strong performances, and for this film, Marvel was able to enlist a plethora of quality talent. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo – an experienced, collected, yet damaged sorcerer studying under the Ancient One – compliments the sarcastic and ambitious nature of Strange well. Benedict Wong and Rachel McAdams as Master Wong and Nurse Christine Palmer, respectively, also have some nice character moments and provide a few laughs along the way.

The “white-washing” controversy surrounding Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One (who, in the comics, was a man of Asian descent), left my mind the minute she stepped into the room with Strange. Swinton’s acting choices bring her character to life, and her expert delivery adds dramatic weight to certain lines of dialogue that may have otherwise come across as poorly written.

Cumberbatch’s performance is already being compared to Robert Downey Jr.’s in “Iron Man” because of the similarities between the origin stories of Stephen Strange and Tony Stark. However, what separates Strange and Stark from the beginning is the charisma and humanity that shine through Stark’s arrogance before becoming Iron Man. He was a likable jerk. The same cannot be said for Strange.

In one scene, Strange tests his music knowledge with other hospital staff while performing surgery. He chooses his operations based on their level of difficulty, discarding ones that he deems unworthy of his time. Even after his accident, he pushes Nurse Palmer, the one person who truly cares for him, away as a result of his pride. The fact that Strange is so unlikeable at the beginning of the film makes it all the more satisfying to watch his transformation unfold on screen, and, as always, Cumberbatch brings his A-game to develop this character.

Scott Derrickson’s background in the horror genre benefits his direction immensely. From the villain’s makeup design to certain visual imagery in the final act, Derrickson’s touch is evident throughout “Doctor Strange,” and the work that he and his team put into the film’s special effects is impeccable, visually and conceptually.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Doctor Strange says to the Ancient One.

“Not everything does. Not everything has to.”

“Doctor Strange” could easily be viewed as typical Marvel fanfare. It takes a hotheaded protagonist and sends him to the darkest depths, only to have him rise from the ashes to claim his destiny. It sacrifices the villain’s character development to ensure a shorter run time and throws away potentially impactful moments for the sake of comedy. Overshadowing the film’s shortcomings for me, however, are excellent performances, visual flair and a bit of magic.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – Movie Review

avengers infinity warAnd so begins the end of an era. Everything that has happened so far in Marvel’s shared universe that began in 2008, everything has led to this moment. Avengers: Infinity War is where this decade’s worth of narrative & world-building is supposed to pay off. And that makes this film more than just another instalment in the franchise. It’s an epic moment, no less than a cinematic event.

The 19th instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and first of the two planned Avengers films that will conclude their Phase 3 plan, Avengers: Infinity War follows the all-powerful Thanos as he travels across the universe looking for infinity stones that would grant him the strength to impose his will on all of reality and finally faces the Avengers in a battle that would decide the fate of all existing lives.

Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo, Infinity War begins where Thor: Ragnarok signed off and what unfolds in the opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the story. It’s no doubt an ambitious undertaking by the Russo brothers but Captain America: Civil War proved that it’s them who were best suited for tackling this massive assignment than anyone else. And for the most part if not all, they do a pretty neat job at it.

Having been teased only in small doses until now, Infinity War puts Thanos front & centre as if it’s his movie. There is more at stake here than previous entries and in Thanos we have a supervillain who lives up to the expectations. His motivation for the sick fantasy that he wants to turn into reality isn’t as strongly appealing but it’s still serviceable. However, the film actually lacks that smooth, perfect balance the first Avengers film exhibited in all aspects.

The VFX team deserves the maximum credit, for everything from the set pieces to numerous locations to changing backdrops & settings to characters’ appearances & outfits is an end result of their work. There are plenty of moments that will make the audience cheer at the spectacle they are witnessing but it could also be exhausting, for CGI-laden action segments don’t carry that lasting effect and may become tiring after a while, which is exactly what happens here.

Cinematography is splendid, utilising IMAX cameras to capture the images in sharp detail & crisp clarity, but it also fails to make the most of the available technology by operating them in conventional fashion. Editing is brilliantly carried out, making sure the action keeps surfacing regularly to keep the interest alive but there were several scenes that it could’ve trimmed from its already demanding 149 mins runtime. And Alan Silvestri contributes with a rousing score that effectively uplifts the film’s larger-than-life aura.

Coming to the performances, barring a few exceptions, the entire ensemble of the MCU return to reprise their respective roles of the Avengers, the Guardians & their allies but it’s Josh Brolin as Thanos who impresses the most. The years of careful threading that underwent into hyping him as the biggest & baddest overlord of villainy & darkness ultimately works out in the film’s favour, as Thanos makes up for one formidable supervillain who’s far more intimidating than past Marvel antagonists and Brolin’s conquering voice makes him stand out even more.

As for the rest of the cast, Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark (Iron Man) with all his charisma & magnetic charm in tact and delivers a confidently assured input. Chris Hemsworth is even better as Thor and is bestowed with the most interesting arc of all Avengers. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers (Captain America) is no slouch either and carves his own moments to shine. Tom Holland is effortlessly captivating as Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and steals almost every scene he appears in. Others do well with what they are given but every single one of them is overshadowed by Thanos’ imposing presence.

On an overall scale, Avengers: Infinity War is an enjoyable, entertaining & satisfying extravaganza that somehow manages to live up to its enormous hype. There are plenty of unexpected surprises & unforeseen tragedies in store, plus the ending is going to hit the fans hard, but all of it would’ve left a more powerful & unforgettable impact if we didn’t already know that much of it will be undone in the next Avengers film. All in all, Avengers: Infinity War nearly pays off 10 years’ worth of investment with an exhilarating action-adventure spectacle and signs off by setting up a perfect stage for the grand finale.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Movie Review

avengers age of ultron

The original line-up of the Avengers are back for another go: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow and a whole bunch of new heroes in Joss Whedon’s final turn in the director’s chair for Marvel’s ensemble franchise.

What’s the story about? Well it’s pretty simple, in the wake of Loki’s attempted invasion of New York City, Tony Stark attempts to create an artificial intelligence whose sole task is to protect Earth against future threats. Of course, this backfires and the Avengers end up creating their deadly enemy, Ultron. The rumors are true: one Avenger will die and it might not be who you expect.

Is it worth watching? Well, first the good stuff: the battle between an enraged Hulk and Iron Man in an unnamed African city is the highlight of the movie and it happens around the midpoint. Supporting characters in the first film like Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Hulk finally get center stage though at the expense of old stalwarts like Thor (who becomes an inadvertent comic relief throughout most of the movie) and Captain America (who turns into a one-dimensional boy scout). Iron Man is the Jimmy Neutron of the team- a tortured genius who tries to create a solution to a problem that has yet to exist and ends up creating a Frankenstein monster of sorts- it’s not that Tony Stark is the villain but this does tie in nicely with the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie.

This brings into focus the central weakness of the movie: namely too many characters and not enough screen time for each one to be fleshed out. The movie not only serves as an origin story for Ultron as well as new Avengers Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and the Vision but it ends up making the story a paper thin pastiche of short character building vignettes around huge swirling chaotic battle scenes- many of them too enamored with fast editing to the point that they are almost too quick to follow with the mind’s eye. Additional cameos by the Falcon, War Machine and Nick Fury only adds to its ad-hoc nature and myriad narrative.

In the end, Avengers Age of Ultron is ultimately satisfying but if you look closer, it seems to be nothing more than a placeholder for future plot lines in the upcoming Marvel Universe movie franchises.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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The Avengers (2012) – Movie Review

avengers

A colossal wave of fevered anticipation preceded the arrival of ‘Marvel’s The Avengers’, the culmination of five incredibly successful standalone films. Not only has helmer Joss Whedon weathered the immense scrutiny, he has amazingly managed to surpass the loftiest expectations with a movie that towers over the rest that have come before it, combining jaw-dropping action, tongue-in-cheek humour and poignant drama into a dazzling piece of summer blockbuster entertainment.

Proving that the whole can be so much more than the sum of its parts, Wheedon has distilled the best elements of each of the preceding movies into this assembly of Marvel superheroes- Iron Man is wiry and snarky as ever; Thor is just as Godly in his might but human in his compassion; and Captain America is still appealingly old-school. The Hulk, or Bruce Banner in his human form, is quite something else altogether though (being the only character to have a change of actor from the previous films) and all the better for it.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the one movie which ‘Avengers’ is most intimately associated with is ‘Thor’, given that both share the same villain- Thor’s adopted brother and fellow Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston)- and that Wheedon did shoot the post-credits scene with Loki and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Opening with a recurring character from that movie, Dr Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) is now assisting with experiments on the Tessaract which has quite unexpectedly displayed a life of its own.

Turns out that the fallen Loki has been drafted by an alien race to lead its invasion of Earth, using the same Tessaract as a portal to cross over from their universe to ours- and his arrival not only leads to the decimation of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base, but also the takeover of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Dr Selvig to do his bidding. With the fate of the world in the balance, Fury activates his ‘Avengers’ initiative to gather this group of heroes, including two S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives – the Black Widow and Hawkeye.

From the outset it’s clear that there is relative poetry in Wheedon’s storytelling as he expertly weaves together the recruiting exercise by Fury and his trusted agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). The best he saves for last, so even though Thor only first appears half an hour into the movie, his is a spectacular entrance befitting a God, crossing paths with Iron Man for a thunderous one-on-one clash in the middle of the woods.

True to the spirit of the books, the assembly of these superheroes begins on a fractious note- chiefly due to Stark’s distrust of Fury and disdain for the star-and-stripes outfitted Captain America. Instead, Stark teams up with the only person he deigns as his intellectual equal- Bruce Banner- to locate the Tessaract and uncover what dirty secrets Fury has been keeping from the rest of them. The answer to the latter isn’t all too unexpected, but kudos to Wheedon for tying this little detail nicely with the events in ‘Thor’.

It will take a colossal event to bring these disparate heroes together, resulting in the first of two action set pieces in the movie that will undoubtedly qualify amongst some of the most spectacularly thrilling stuff you’ll ever see on the big screen. And just when you think it couldn’t get any better, Wheedon tops it with an even grander and absolutely breathtaking climax set in the heart of New York City.

The reason why the finale works so brilliantly is that Wheedon loves and respects each and every superhero character just as much. Wheedon gets the action pitch-perfect through reinforcing the individual powers of each one of the superheroes before uniting their strengths to form an even mightier coalition. It is nothing less than pure ecstasy when they join forces as a team, and you’ll find it difficult to resist getting up from your seat and cheering for them at various points throughout the remarkable finish.

This review however won’t be complete without a special shout-out for the Hulk, many fans of whom have been disappointed by both the Lee Ang and the later Louis Leterrier iteration of it. Here, Wheedon has finally gotten it right, blending both the character’s brains and brawn to crowd pleasing effect- even more so through some clever plotting that ensures Banner’s eventual transformation from man to beast is as rewarding as it should be.

Calling it the perfect summer blockbuster is probably not enough to do justice to just how brilliant it is, and it certainly ranks as one of the most- if not the most- entertaining and exhilarating experiences you’ll have at the movies.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) – Movie Review

antman and wasp

Ant-Man and the Wasp is yet one more milestone in Marvel’s lucrative super-powered saga – one more feather to add to CEO Kevin Feige’s cap. Now would seem like a suitable moment to marvel (get it?) at the unprecedented feat this man’s studio has accomplished – that of producing twenty distinct, sequential, feature-length movies in a single decade – as we rest for a spell in this juncture between epics, and await the end of the MCU (for better or worse) as we know it. Who knows what Phase 4 will bring?

Tonally, most would liken the sequel to 2015’s Ant-Man, and rightly so. Here you have a unique corner of the comic-book world – one which hits upon a very light, very comedic note, which characteristically involves plenty of action, albeit of an especially breezy, upbeat nature. Egotistic quips and visual gags are vastly popular staples across the family of Marvel instalments, yet rarely do they let slip the more urgent themes so as to embrace the comedy so wholeheartedly as Ant-Man and the Wasp, loaded with laughs aplenty as it is. In my opinion, the sequel improves on the original, scaling up the jokes and gimics of the first, while shrinking its’ defects (whatever those were, as my comment was naturally played entirely for effect!). In any case, a fresher feel sets this newer movie a step ahead of the original. That being said, it shares minimum involvement with the greater goings-on in the general world-stage of the MCU. Hearkening back to its’ predecessor once again, one may expect a neat, isolated adventure set largely in its’ own, friendly little (or sometimes rather giant!) world, which, after a ponderous opening and surprisingly action-lacking mid-section, brings us to a really fun climax that includes most of the movie’s action, and certainly the most satisfying part overall. One of the harsher (and perhaps unfair) adjectives I could cruelly suggest concerning the plot would be the word “meaningless”. The story is fine – it just doesn’t impact anyone or anything else very much. This may irk some; it may leave others nonplussed. Only mind that this tale shares precious few links to the greater scheme which stupified fans earlier this year.

Two words on characters and acting: Michael Peña! This man truely does steal the show – definitely a highlight of the fun. Yet although the casting is mostly spot-on, the characters typically lack a depth and moral and emotional quality that, were it to exist, would elevate the film to a new level (I’m looking at you, Marvel). Here I blame the writers more for incompetency in forming characters with meaning and personality than I blame the actors. In our age of sequels, tonnes of characters are played only to a “satisfactory” level, filling shoes without bringing anything more than the bare necessities to the role. Certainly in this movie, but also all over the MCU, shallow villains and heroes alike too often dominate the screen. The characters are good – but not outstanding.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself humming that catchy little Ant-Man theme incessantly days in a row after seeing this movie. Christopher Beck’s score encapsulates perfectly the quirky silliness of the movie’s antics at all the right times, yet also displays a thorough command of the more serious-spirited side of things when needed.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is probably best described as a real “fun” time. Laughs and action in abundance make popular crowd-pleasers as the movie opts for a conventional approach which is likely to please everybody all round to a degree. While iffy on the morals, it doesn’t stint on smooth (and often amusing) effects and a catchy score. Other setbacks (depending on your opinion) may include some weak stunts and unimagintive scriptwriting. Nevertheless, Marvel continues to rule the box office and the hearts of fans world-wide with an ever-increasing roster of quality entertainment, which, given its’ size and complexity, approaches something like television show status. If my cinema attendance is indicative of the larger audience, then it’s proof that our favourite big-screen superheroes are not going away anytime soon.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Ant-Man (2015) – Movie Review

ant man

When I first heard the news that Marvel was producing a film about “Ant-Man,” I thought that there was no way it could be good. How could a movie about a superhero who can control ants be interesting at all? Furthermore, my doubts on how well the movie would do were further diminished when I found out that Paul Rudd, a comedian, was going to play the lead role of Scott Lang who would eventually become “Ant- Man.” I never thought Rudd was a poor actor, just not one who could pull off a comic book hero role. I entered the theater with low expectations, but left pleasantly surprised.

“Ant-Man” turned out to be a fun, different, and off-beat film. It tells the story of a master thief named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who has just gotten out of prison and is trying to make amends and keep a job. Lang is divorced but has a young daughter who idolizes him. Lang eventually comes in contact with a mysterious man named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) whose plans for Lang end up changing his life. This film develops each one of the main characters fairly well. It shows us that although Scott Lang has a criminal background, he still generally means well. It also builds on Douglas’s character as well as on Evangeline Lilly’s character, Hope Van Dyne, although in this review I don’t want to give away too much.

There are also many little things that make this movie charming. Paul Rudd ends up playing Scott Lang wonderfully. He delivers his lines well and plays the character exactly the way he should. Douglas is great as he normally is, and Lilly portrays her serious character quite well. Corey Stoll’s “Darren Cross” is a generally interesting villain, although there wasn’t much that made him stand out from other villains in the Marvel universe. The comic relief character, Michael Peña, is spot on. His character is a silly, small-time thief who is a friend of Lang’s and who accompanied him on his past crimes. Overall, the casting choices proved to be effective.

In conclusion, “Ant-Man” is a film that I believe anybody can enjoy, superhero fan or not. The characters are likable, the story is different enough from a standard Marvel film to make it interesting, and there’s plenty of humor, character development, and action to make this movie worth seeing again. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man” in movies to come.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – Movie Review

thor ragnarok

The ultimate cinematic dilemma is how to make the next comic book movie stand out from the (many, many) others? The brilliant answer comes from director Taika Waititi and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – a screwball superhero action film that delivers not only intense action scenes, but also a compelling villain for the ages in a movie that may be the funniest of 2017.

For those who prefer their superheroes dark and brooding, you’ll be in for a shock. Prepare for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster – the most polite villain we’ve seen in awhile, and one who looks to be straight out of the 1960’s “Batman” series. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is one of many returning actors/characters, only this time he really gets to flex his comedic timing on top of his Thunder God biceps. His love- hate, trust-no trust, see-saw relationship with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in full force, as is the rivalry and banter with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s certainly more in line with Guardians of the Galaxy than the previous Avengers installments.

As much fun as Goldblum brings to the party, this is really Cate Blanchett’s show. She is the frightening Goddess of Death, long-lost sister of Thor and Loki, and daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). With a costume which is very faithful to the comics (and we get a few versions throughout the movie), Hela’s enormous powers are powerful enough to destroy Mjolnir with little effort, not to mention much of Asgard and key players within.

Of course, with that title, we know that the story revolves around what could be the end of Asgard. Joining in the fun are: Idris Elba who is back as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as a master of one-liners Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge – rewarded with a wonderful exit scene, Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, and rocky alien Korg who is voiced by director Waititi. Fans of the series will be happy to know other familiar faces pop up periodically – one especially magical sequence teaches Loki a quick lesson.

In addition to the main rescue story line, the powerful villains, and crazy aliens, there are numerous nods and tributes to well known storylines from the comic books (notably Planet Hulk, and Fantastic Four), and a hilarious early stage play with three cameos that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Special acknowledgment goes to director Taika Waititi for adeptly taking the comic book film world down a different path. While he’s mostly known for his comedic projects like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, and his work on the brilliant but short-lived “Flight of the Conchords”, this is still very much a Marvel movie, with the visible fingerprints of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. It’s also a fantastic adventure film that sets the stage for 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, while also featuring the best use ever of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. This is without a doubt a great addition to the MCU.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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