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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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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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) – Movie Review

hobbit battle of 5 armies

There’s simply no denying it: The Hobbit is no The Lord Of The Rings. While cast and production values remain absolutely top-notch, the first two films in the Hobbit trilogy have proved disappointing, especially when assessed against the sublime trio of movies that first transported us to Middle-earth. It’s evident that the slim narrative of J.R.R. Tolkien’s source novel – even when supplemented with details and backstory from his Appendices – simply doesn’t merit an expansion into three unnecessarily protracted movies. Strictly speaking, The Battle Of The Five Armies suffers from many of the same problems as its predecessors. But director Peter Jackson proves once again that he’s an expert hand at crafting epic battles underpinned by love, loyalty and sacrifice. As a result, the final Hobbit film is (more or less) the best of the trilogy, although it still pales in comparison to what comes after it.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarven company of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) watch in horror as Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) lays waste to Laketown. When Bard (Luke Evans) bravely manages to take the dragon out, Thorin regains the mountain kingdom of Erebor by default. He succumbs swiftly to the ‘Dragon Sickness’ – a hungering greed to keep the treasures of Erebor all to himself, refusing a claim from elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace) and rewards for Bard and the now-homeless humans. As a battle brews between dwarfs, elves and men, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) returns from Dol Goldur with news that entire battalions of orcs are on the march as well – signs of an incipient evil that might soon sweep Middle-earth again.

Truth be told, The Battle Of The Five Armies doesn’t have quite the sense of magic and poetry that so effortlessly infuses the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Indeed, the script is peppered with simplistic dialogue, with many characters forced to navigate entire chunks of exposition or deliver less than witty one-liners. Bilbo and Gandalf, for instance, spend a great deal of the raging battle standing still and expounding on what’s going on around them. It also seems remarkably odd for a film weighted down with so many characters, including wholly invented ones like lovelorn elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), that so much screen time is devoted to Alfrid (Ryan Gage). The vile right- hand man of Laketown’s Master (Stephen Fry) is clearly meant to provide comic relief now that the dwarfs are caught up in emotional turmoil of their own, but winds up annoying rather than entertaining the audience.

And yet, Jackson somehow manages to salvage the film from itself, in no small part because of the engrossing battle scenes and some deft character work from his stellar cast. The climactic battle stretches well over an hour, as the upper hand shifts from orcs to everyone else and back again, but Jackson keeps the action and drama coming thick and fast. Waves of orcs slam into ragged battle lines of men, ranks of elves swell and rise, and Thorin wavers between greed and honour as he decides whether to plunge into war or stay safely sequestered within the impregnable walls of Erebor. Many of the battle sequences may be technically extraneous, but it’s hard to care too much when Legolas (Orlando Bloom) – scoring his requisite action-hero moment – dances his way to safety over a collapsing bridge and takes out an orc or two while doing so.

Jackson’s cast – actors we’ve spent so much time with over the past decade – rises remarkably to the occasion. There’s stellar support, as always, from fan favourites like McKellen and Cate Blanchett, whose Galadriel goes briefly supernova in a confrontation which foreshadows the darkness that will befall Middle-earth come The Lord Of The Rings. Armitage lends considerable depth and weight to Thorin, who could easily lose a great deal of audience sympathy when he burrows further into himself and starts losing (and banishing) friends. Pace exudes a solemn, almost malevolent dignity as Thranduil, one which he tempers with a surprising amount of heart as well. For a brief, touching moment, the imperious king finds within himself the father he has forgotten how to be. Even Lilly, who is saddled with a made-up character and fledgling, forbidden romance with dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), miraculously mines some genuine emotion from a fairly poorly-conceived and utterly fictitious love story.

The true triumph of the Hobbit franchise, however, remains Freeman. He’s playing the same archetype that Elijah Wood did in The Lord Of The Rings – the homebody Hobbit who’s small in stature yet casts an enormous shadow – but makes it feel thoroughly fresh. Freeman’s Bilbo is equal parts heart, humour and hero, and he makes it easy to see why Gandalf holds hobbits in such high esteem. Freeman’s scenes with Armitage, rife with paranoia and tension on Thorin’s part, are some of the best in the film, with a huge emotional payoff at the end.

With The Battle Of The Five Armies, the curtain really does fall at last on Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth. In the past three years, it’s been – frankly – a pretty bumpy journey. In too many ways, the Hobbit trilogy recalls but never quite manages to recapture the indescribable magic of The Lord Of The Rings. That’s true of the final film in the franchise as well. But it certainly comes closer than either of its two predecessors to truly making Middle-earth live again. The film’s final scenes quite literally bring everything home, and in that final swell of music and emotion, throw open the doors to the epic world that Jackson first invited us into over a decade ago.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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The Imitation Game (2014) – Movie Review

Not many people knew who Alan Turing was, other than the fact that he was the father of modern computing and related artificial intelligence. As a biopic centered on Turing’s crucial years, The Imitation Game is a stirring film behind his genius and why he remained an unsung World War II hero until recently.

Set between 1939 and 1945, but flanked by plot arcs set in the early 1920s and 1950s, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum gives us a glimpse into three phases in Turing’s life, where each phase reveals a little more about who he was, what he did, and how he helped end World War II by as early as four years. The central aspect has Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) working with British Intelligence as a code breaker in London’s Bletchley Park, the UK’s Government Code and Cypher School. His job is to break and decipher what the Allies referred to as the unbreakable Enigma Code – Germany’s highly encrypted radio transmissions that allowed the Nazi war machine superior naval and aerial assault on vulnerable Allied positions. Assigned to a small group of code breakers including one female, Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley), Turing is initially an outcast due to his reclusive and eccentric nature. With time running out, Turing eventually finds favour in his MI6 supervising officer Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) whose connections with Prime Minister Winston Churchill lands him enough resources to build a machine that has half a chance at breaking the Enigma code.

That World War II ended in Allied victory is retrospective of the final push between the Allied forces and Hitler’s Third Reich. While cinema history is studded with countless war and action films encompassing this era, The Imitation Game, on the other hand, is not a war film and not a single bullet is fired by any of the characters. It is still a period piece and one that had to be told for at least two important reasons. In adapting from mathematician Andre Hodges’ 1983 book Alan Turing: The Enigma, Debut screenwriter Graham Moore saves these reasons for the final thirty minutes of the story, thus limiting the story to a mere countdown spy-thriller, albeit well told in the hands of the director. After saving as many as 14 million lives, why wasn’t Alan Turing a decorated hero? What were the real reasons leading up to his eventual suicide in 1954? And why was his memory granted posthumous honour but only in 2013? The answers are there, some of them shocking, but a little too late in the film which itself is about a story that is told a little too late.

Understandably, Turing’s work within the supposedly non-existent MI6 was classified until recently. The fact that this film was made after the declassification of his contribution makes sense. That being said, the final reveal feels restrained and panders towards social commentary rather than taking the time to venerate a war hero. But if you overlook flaws in the story, including a hokey ‘Eureka’ scene when they finally break the code, The Imitation Game is still a good film with several tense moments; one of which is the juncture the team arrives at when they break the code. It’s a startling moment in the film literally illustrating the power of knowledge as godly.

Thematically similar to the Academy Award winning A Beautiful Mind, with as many glowing reviews and the possibility of a parallel Oscar run, I conquer that The Imitation Game is well made and very well acted for a period piece. Cumberbatch anchors his role with absolute virtuoso in portraying Turing as an unlikable and egotistical individual with superior intelligence, while ultimately exposing his vulnerability as a misunderstood introvert. Together with Knightley, they make formidable pairing depicting interpersonal relationships that are equally charming and tragic. It is indeed a tragic story considering what Turing could have achieved for humanity, only to be utterly disregarded by what is supposedly modern civilization.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Star Trek: Into Darkness – Movie Review

star trek into darkness

Let me preface this review by saying I am not a Trekkie, watched very few episodes from the various Star Trek series on TV and didn’t care for the movies that were made prior to the J. J. Abrams reboot in 2009. So, I have no vested interest in what came before, I really just wanted to see a sequel which was as good if not better than the first one. And this movie delivers just that. It really is an amazing film with depth of story and shades of grey throughout the various plotlines. The performances by the actors are very good, with the exception of Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch who are absolutely brilliant. If you’ve seen the trailer then you know that there are special effects galore, so no surprises there. My only disappointment was not seeing more of the extended crew as this film focuses very closely on the developing friendship between Spock and Kirk, but meh, it’s a minor complaint considering how much I enjoyed this film. This is the kind of movie that Iron Man 3 wishes it could have been.

 

10 out of 10