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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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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Thor (2011) – Movie Review

thor

Thor is exactly what a comic-book movie ought to be – it’s packed with action and great effects, it’s true to its source material, it gives us characters we actually care about, and it’s a tense melodrama with connections to Shakespeare.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is an Asgardian prince, son of King Odin (check your Norse mythology). Hot-headed, impetuous, prone to violence, and quite full of himself, he is nonetheless next in line for the throne. Just before his coronation is complete, however, intruders from Jotunheimm infiltrate Asgard; although they’re quickly dispatched, Thor demands revenge, and against his father’s explicit orders, he and his friends (including his brother, Loki) travel to Jotunheim to seek answers – and kick butt, if necessary and possible. Odin finds out and saves them, but he strips Thor of his powers – including his great hammer, Mjolnir, and banishes him to Earth to teach him a lesson in humility.

This banishment serves to open the door for treachery in Asgard, allowing the Frost Giants of Jotunheim to wage war against the Asgardians. Meanwhile, some of that trouble is spilled out onto the Earth, where Thor has fallen under the romantic spell of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Suffice to say that bad things come to a small town in New Mexico, with only a now-mortal Thor able to help them.

But this movie is about more than just bad guys plotting to take over the universe; it’s about father-son relationships and the rivalry between a favored son and “the other brother.” There’s a lot of Henry V and King Lear present, and this is due in no small part to the movie’s director, the great Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is not the first person you’d think of to direct a movie based on a comic book, but he skillfully manages to not only keep the expected characterizations and plot fresh but also to instill a sense of classicism and wonderment.

The CGI is pretty well utilized and what’s more important it doesn’t distract from the plot. In some movies, effects serve as noise to prevent the audience from discovering that the story doesn’t make much sense. Branagh isn’t subtle in his use of technology, but this isn’t a movie that really should be subtle. Thor himself certainly isn’t.

Hemsworth is perfectly cast in the title role. Sturdy and ripped, he fits Thor’s physical description, but also infuses the character with depth and likability. Portman, an Oscar winner, fills a role similar to Liv Tyler’s and Jennifer Connelly’s in the two Hulk films. Her character reminded me quite a bit of Jodie Foster’s character in Contact – a determined, resolved, super-smart researcher determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery being presented.

Anthony Hopkins plays Odin as you’d expect Anthony Hopkins to play a king: regally, with a weary toughness. Idris Elba, Kat Denning, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Hiddleston, Ray Stevenson, and a couple of uncredited supporting characters are also well cast.

Thor is every bit as entertaining as I thought it’d be. It’s classy without being out of reach for the rest of us; it’s not a Royal Theater production, but neither is it a simple slam-bang cacophony of senseless violence.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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The Incredible Hulk (2008) – Movie Review

incredible hulk

When acclaimed director Ang Lee’s cerebral take on comic book anti-hero the Hulk hit screens in 2003, the reaction was hardly a positive one. Fans of the comic books fumed over the script straying from its source material, whereas critics and audiences alike mused over the effectiveness of the philosophical ruminations in lieu of crowd pleasing action sequences. All of the above criticisms appear to have been taken by Marvel Studios (now producing their own franchises) seriously, revamping and continuing the green behemoth’s tale with a more action focused story and whole new cast. And while The Incredible Hulk may not quite live up to the no holds barred action epic its premise promised, it proves a satisfyingly bombastic smackdown to appease both fans of the comics and audiences alike.

The inherent imbalance in the script lends credibility to the rumours of creative disputes between Edward Norton’s and the studio. While opening sequences detailing Banner’s fugitive life in Brazil prove breathless, tense and tremendously gripping, taking more than a few notes from the Bourne series, upon returning to the United States, the promising start lags, as continual run ins with the military become increasingly repetitive and unoriginal, with the raucous fun of the periodic Hulk battles now saddled with a flimsy romantic subplot, entirely failing to compliment the intrigue. Here the script begins to falter, tripping over itself during certain crucial emotional moments with contrived lines and confusingly stilted character motivations, while the sidelining of certain characters initially presented as major players (most noticeably Ty Burell’s Doc Sampson) reeks of hasty last minute cuts. By the film’s obligatory big climax, it becomes clear that the creative reigns have shifted – all the prior gritty realism has vanished, replaced with a more conventional and less enjoyable action finish. As the occasional throwaway comic moments (some more effective than others) prevent the film from descending into the realm of melodramatic self importance, the film’s primary redeeming factor emerges – despite the steady descent into excess stupidity, it is never afraid to have some fun, the quality Ang Lee’s incarnation sorely lacked.

Of course, the primary draw for superhero blockbusters is seldom the screen writing, and Transporter director Louis Leterrier’s unapologetic “smash first, talk later” approach does generate some exhilarating action sequences, but the increasingly unimaginative fight choreography and relative sparsity of action set pieces for an action focused film detracts from the glorious destruction that could have been, the attempted juxtaposition of emotional intensity only slowing the gleeful mayhem. Thankfully, CGI special effects make this new, grittier Hulk about as close to feasibly photo real as one could hope for, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Norton himself, though certain fluctuating details (the Hulk appears smaller or less muscular at various points) give the impression of patchy continuity, and the movement of both Hulk and monstrous adversary The Abomination appears too mechanically humanoid to properly capture the otherworldly feel of gargantuan muscular mutations – nonetheless, an impressive and exhilarating effort overall.

Despite the laudable use of quality actors over conventional blockbuster stars, even the astutely talented performers prove they can only do so much with such a steadily flimsy script. Edward Norton of course proves the exception, his passion for the project and standard blistering intensity making tortured protagonist Bruce Banner a truly fleshed out and tragic character. Burning with nobility and pathos, his plight genuinely moving and his battle with the monster raging inside of him truly gripping, Norton truly convinces in the crucial role. In contrast, Liv Tyler is saddled with an embarrassing less fleshed out role, exemplifying the worst aspects of comic book love interests, with nothing to do but scream the hero’s name and stand around statuesquely looking worried – it is a shame to see such a talented actress descend to such banality. Tim Roth similarly suffers, infusing tragically two-dimensional antagonist Emil Blonsky with all the steely menace and petty arrogance and ambition he can muster, but his talent is still diminished by the overwhelming predictability of his role. William Hurt is appropriately grim as obsessive general “Thunderbolt” Ross, thankfully eschewing the scene chomping which could have resulted all too easily, and Tim Blake Nelson delivers a bout of much needed irreverent goofiness as overeager scientist Samuel Sterns, his brief but enjoyable role hinting at a larger character progression in any ensuing films. Finally, the film’s slew of enjoyable cameos do not disappoint, from Stan Lee and Lou Ferringo appearances to the highly anticipated Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man lead Tony Stark, a fitting and classy way of bridging the gap between superhero franchises as well as planting further seeds for the upcoming Avengers film.

While the film may disappointingly fall short of its true potential, comic book fans can breathe a hearty sigh of relief that the green behemoth has been firmly returned to his less philosophical and more action filled roots. If nothing else, Leterrier’s more singular vision is laudable, never losing track of its true intent: even during the fumbling between dramatic clout and exhilarating action, the film never fails to entertain. While the superb cast may flounder with underwritten characters, Norton’s incendiary lead performance and the enthusiastic action sequences make The Incredible Hulk a solid edition into the realm of guilt-free summer entertainment – despite the criticisms, Hulk finally smashes.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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