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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The Martian (2015) – Movie Review

Ridley Scott’s film “The Martian” does not mess around with buildup or anything in the way of expository drama; it gets right to the point and recognizes why you came to see it. It opens with Ares III, NASA’s manned mission to Mars, experiencing a treacherous storm upon arriving on the red planet. Debris is flying and visibility is next to nothing, and before the astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, and Kate Mara) can take off, fellow astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by a flying antenna and presumed killed. The group takes off with the notion that Watney is dead.

Following NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) making the announcement of Watney’s death, we see that Watney is indeed very much alive on Mars, albeit slightly handicapped after being impaled in the stomach by the antenna. Watney now has to essentially operate on a field of landmines whilst acting as a scientist MacGyver to try and sustain life on Mars, a place where presumably nothing grows and anything can go wrong at any time. In addition to monitoring water reclamation, oxygen, and atmospheric levels, he winds up growing an array of potatoes with the help of the feces of him and his crew and makes a small home for himself. It will over four years for another manned mission to rescue him, but NASA headquarters, comprised of Sanders and assistants like Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Annie (Kristen Wiig), is determined to bring him back home in a timely fashion.

Headquarters is also struggling with the idea of telling the surviving members of the Ares III mission that Watney is alive, which ignites a fiery ethical side to the film’s story. With that, “The Martian” is essentially a gigantic teamwork exercise where everyone feels human, which is a pleasant attribute for Scott, whose recent films have really lacked in the filmmaking craft and humanization elements. Scott’s visual effects and grandscale directing usually never fail, but when these become the focus and human characters and the little touches (the science, the cause-and-effect relationships, and the narrative interest) become secondary or gravely shortchanged, then there’s a real issue with his films on a macro level.

“The Martian,” even with its nearly two and a half hour runtime, remains consistently interesting because it’s a generally optimistic film, surprisingly enough. Watney is a wisecracker a lot of the time, even in the face of certain doom, and seeing NASA’s constant efforts to bring him home show a certain diligence on their behalf works to make this film surprisingly hopeful. Then there’s the roundtable of rich performances here; aside from Damon, who does solid work being the only actor on-screen in his scenes for his sheer honesty mixed with vulnerability, Daniels and Ejiofor work off of each other incredibly well together here.

Consider the scene following Ares III’s escape from Mars during the storm, when Watney is still presumed dead; the two consult one another about what to do with Watney’s remains whilst subsequently trying to find a way to turn it into a more positive, caring PR display by sending another mission out to recover his corpse. This is a perfect scene in the way that it shows the way corporations and organizations balance humanity while considering their bottom-line, and who better to play figures in those pivotal positions of power than Daniels, who’s work on “The Newsroom” has gone on to be acclaimed, and Ejiofor, who, much like David Oyelowo, will likely win an Oscar in the next ten years.

Aside from a reliance on montages instead of actual exposition, “The Martian”‘s biggest problem as a film is the fact that we simply do not get enough time with Watney alone. The audience can never get a strong grasp on a relationship with this character simply because we’re never allotted enough one-on-one time without the intrusion of mission control. We needed more scenes with Watney ostensibly helpless, trying to farm, or simply trying to get by on what little he has to surround himself and the film doesn’t do that.

“The Martian” also makes fairly strong use of its 3D elements, using it as a tool of immersion rather than a gimmick that works to add a surcharge to already high movie ticket prices. Consider the storm scene, which completely floods the screen with indiscernible debris and disarray; the scene is only emphasized with the benefit of 3D and makes the experience that much more horrifying, being that, like the characters, we can barely see a thing.

Above all, this is a film destined to please a crowd; in addition, it also keeps its pathos down considerably, doesn’t do a whole lot of pandering to a crowd anxious to see action, and never loses sight of its deeply human and remarkable story. It also reaffirms the value of logical problem-solving in the face of a truly unexpected, and granted unprecedented, time of tumultuous uncertainty. It’s a low-key triumph made on a nine figure budget.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Annihilation (2018) – Movie Review

Annihilation is another solid entry in the dark, cerebral sci-fi genre for director Alex Garland, though compared to his debut (Ex Machina) it is decidedly less consistent. The film’s somber atmosphere and otherworldly visuals are its major strengths. There are some truly striking and memorable images in this film that manage to be alien, haunting, and disarmingly beautiful, often all at the same time. The final act of the film is certainly its centerpiece and is where its most powerful and piercing images reside. These final 20 minutes are where the film reaches its full potential, offering up a nearly wordless denouement that is hypnotic, visually spectacular, and unsettlingly bizarre. It’s certainly worth seeing just for this sequence.

What comes before the finale is more of a mixed bag. I get the sense that the core goal for this film was to capture that warped, uncanny quality of like-minded classic sci-fi films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker while exploring the nature of identity and other philosophical and psychological themes. It is at its best in its most uncompromising and avant-garde moments that dive head-first into achieving that goal. However, there are a considerable number of sequences in the film that feel more traditional and comparatively uninspired, more along the lines of what you would see in a less heady and ambitious sci-fi thriller. Given that Garland was picked up by a major studio (Paramount) for this release based on the success of Ex Machina, which was a much smaller and more independent production, I have to wonder if these were concessions made to the studio to make the film more accessible to a wide audience.

On further investigation, there is some evidence to support this idea as Paramount reportedly nearly forced Garland to significantly alter the finale due to poor test screenings, fearing the film was “too intellectual” and would not play well to a wide audience. Ultimately, Garland fought and won the battle to keep the film unaltered, though the result was that Paramount backed out on giving it an international theatrical release, shifting the rights to Netflix instead for regions outside of the U.S., Canada, and China. This kind of pressure from major studios is so often what suffocates the artistic integrity of directors and, although Garland succeeded in keeping the film unaltered for a hefty price, it’s possible that this pressure influenced the film and contributed to the clash between the more uncompromising elements and the somewhat mundane, typical thriller sequences.

Still, the film at large succeeds as a worthy addition to the genre even if it doesn’t quite reach the artistry of a film like Under the Skin (a much more uncompromising modern sci-fi classic that I highly recommend if you enjoyed this). Although I didn’t love the whole film, I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of the genre based on the strength of its visuals and its fantastic final act. It certainly further establishes Garland as a talent to watch and I’m excited for his future output, especially if he’s able to work with a studio that is willing to trust him with full creative control.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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