Doctor Strange


He's a magic man, he's got the magic hands.

He’s a magic man, he’s got the magic hands.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden, Topo Wresniwiro, Umit Ulgen, Linda Louise Duan, Mark Anthony Brighton, Meera Syal, Amy Landecker. Directed by Scott Derrickson

 

It was Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey who once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, that’s assuming that there is no magic but then again if there was such a thing it would likely end up being explainable by scientific theory once we understood it. Then again, there’s always the possibility that magic is real.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is one of the top neurosurgeons in the world. He has saved literally thousands of lives and lives in a Greenwich Village apartment that is more palace than apartment although it is somewhat sterile in many ways. Dr. Strange is a bit of an egotist, something that has made his relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer (McAdams) fall apart, although they are still fond of each other – it’s just that Strange is just a little bit fonder of himself.

A terrible car accident puts paid to all of that however. His hands – those marvelous, life-giving hands – hae been badly injured. He can barely hold a scalpel anymore and has zero control over his nerves. His hands shake like an epileptic at a disco revival. He has tried every surgical option and drug known to man but nevertheless his situation remains unchanged.

Desperate, he discovers the case of a man named Jonathan Pangborn (Bratt) who was told he’d never walk again by plenty of doctors, including Strange himself. Amazingly he was not only walking but playing basketball. When asked what his secret was, Pangborn sends Strange to Kathmandu to find a particular order of monks. While searching the streets of Kathmandu for it, he runs into Mordo (Ejiofor), a disciple of the person Strange is looking for. Mordo takes Strange to The Ancient One (Swinton), an ancient Celt who reigns as Sorcerer Supreme, a title of respect and the latest addition to the McDonald’s Value Meal menu.

Despite being unable to accept on faith the powers of the Ancient One being a man of science, Strange nevertheless manages to convince her to train him in the mystical arts, although she’s reluctant at first. She thinks he’s an arrogant close-minded twit and she’s essentially right but arrogant close-minded twits are people too, no?

And she’s in need of all the help she can get. One of her former disciples, Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), has essentially gone mad. He wants to create a world without death and in order to do that, he has to summon Dormammu – an ancient creature from another dimension that predates the Gods and who wants to wipe out all life in our universe. So a world without death is a world without life, right? Those tricky old god bastards!

Kaecilius is a powerful sorcerer and Strange is just learning his way around. As Kaecilius races to destroy all the wards that protect our dimension from beings like Dormammu, Strange discovers that he has been chosen by a pair of powerful artifacts – and that the way to beat a god is to think like one.

After a couple of subpar Marvel offerings, it’s nice to see that they’re back on track with a movie that sums up everything right about the Marvel films. Firstly, this is a movie about characters and not superpowers. Steven Strange is an interesting human being full of human frailty despite having the power to warp reality itself. Cumberbatch does a marvelous job of capturing the good doctor that I remember from the comic books, although I have to admit that he sounds a little bit strange with an American accent. Ouch.

The special effects here are pretty impressive, although they do borrow heavily from other sources. Certainly the reality warping takes a page right out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and some may find that to be a bit of a cop-out, but at least it’s utilized in a more physical way than Nolan did. The spells look almost scientific in nature just as you’d expect a man of science to relate to casting magic spells. All in all, some of the best effects we’ve seen yet in a Marvel film and that’s saying something.

The relationship between Strange and Palmer doesn’t generate a lot of heat; there’s more of a bromance between Mordo and Strange. Ejiofor is a reliable performer who always seems to get the most out of every role he tackles. Swinton is simply put one of the strongest actresses working today; the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was an elderly Asian gentleman, was rewritten extensively to suit Swinton who is none of those things (elderly, Asian or a gentleman).

The action is pretty much non-stop once it gets going, although it takes a little while to. In essence, once again Marvel has done it – created an entirely different superhero movie that retains the feel of the comic book, the consistency of a shared cinematic universe but able to retain individual identities for each film. Any franchise filmmaker will tell you how extraordinarily difficult that is. In any case, it’s a fitting lead off to the holiday blockbuster season. I can’t think of a single reason why anyone who likes entertaining movies shouldn’t see it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are mind-blowing. The story and characters are as good as any in any Marvel movie. One of the best supporting casts of any Marvel movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems to exist on its own plane outside the rest of the Marvel movies.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of violence and carnage, some mind-bending changes of perspective and a car crash sequence that’s rather intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The appearance of the comic book character was based on actor Vincent Price and even had the middle name of “Vincent.” In recent years the character’s look has been modernized, with a goatee replacing the pencil mustache he’d had since his inception.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shadow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Amanda Knox

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The Judge


The awkward moment when Vincent D'Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

The awkward moment when Vincent D’Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Lancaster, Lonnie Farmer, Matt Riedy, Mark Kiely, Jeremy Holm, Catherine Cummings, Tamara Hickey. Directed by David Dobkin

The relationship between a father and a son is often a difficult thing. Men have a tendency towards competitiveness. Fathers love their sons fiercely and want them to be successful which is, after all, a reflection on them as dads. However, there is a part of every dad who is terrified that the day will come when his son surpasses him as a man. That’s where the difficulty comes in.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a high-powered defense attorney in Chicago. When asked how he is able to defend the guilty, he quips “the innocent can’t afford me.” If Tony Stark were a defense attorney, he’d be Hank Palmer.

In court one afternoon he gets the devastating news that his mother has passed away suddenly. Not really looking forward to it, he returns to his small town Indiana home for the funeral. There he meets up with his two siblings; older brother Glen (D’Onofrio), once a promising baseball phenom, and younger brother Dale (Strong) who has emotional challenges and usually can be found using a Super 8 camera to record snippets of his life which he edits into films that have no context for anyone other than Dale.

And then there’s Hank’s dad (Duvall), whom Hank refers to as “The Judge” – not Dad, not Pop, not Father but the title. It’s not just Hank defining his father by his chosen career as a dispenser of justice, but also coloring the relationship he has with him. Talk about daddy issues.

The two get along like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid jostling for space in front of the news camera and Hank is only too happy to return home despite reconnecting with Samantha Powell (Farmiga), an old flame. Hank is in the market at the moment as his marriage to his wife Lisa (Lancaster) has collapsed after her infidelity. His precocious daughter Lauren (Tremblay) is torn between her two parents when it comes to who she wants to live with.

Hank is sitting down in his seat on board the plane when he gets an urgent call from Glen – the Judge has been arrested for a hit and run accident. The victim was Mark Blackwell (Kiely), a man the Judge had put away in prison but had recently been released. The two have an unpleasant history.

With a suave district attorney (Thornton) looking to put the Judge away for good, it will take all of Hank’s skill as a defense lawyer to keep his dad out of jail. But said father isn’t necessarily being the most cooperative defendant ever and there are things that Hank discovers when he begins digging that turn his perception of the case – and his father – on its ear.

Dobkin, whose career thus far has been fairly uneven, has a solid winner here and it starts with the casting. Duvall is one of the world’s best living actors and at 83 he still can deliver a powerful performance. He lends gravitas to the movie as well as a kind of moral certainty. Downey who at one time was on the road to being one of America’s most promising serious actors until his career was briefly derailed, moves back into proving that his Oscar nominations for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder were no flukes. This may be his best performance ever, showing a deeply conflicted man wrestling with the demons of his past and the guilt that accompanies the decisions he’s made. D’Onofrio is the rock of the family in many ways now that his mom is gone and his performance is also very compelling. Farmiga as the girlfriend who got away continues to amass an impressive resume of performances.

Some of the plot points seem to come right out of the TV lawyer handbook and that can be distracting. Not that this is a police procedural in any sense of the concept, but it is definitely something of a legal procedural, although the movie tends to spend less time with the nuts and bolts of preparing a case and more with what happens during a trial. In its favor, the movie’s ending isn’t neat and tidy by any stretch of the imagination. Like most human endeavors, court case rarely end with satisfaction over the outcome by everyone involved.

Dobkin cast this movie extremely well and has given us a very strong courtroom drama that is also portrays a dysfunctional family dynamic which sets this apart from other courtroom dramas. Downey references Atticus Finch and to be sure this is no To Kill a Mockingbird but the performances here make this something worth seeking out for anyone who appreciates strong acting.

REASONS TO GO: Duvall brings gravitas. Downey, D’Onofrio, Farmiga and Thornton all give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Has kind of a TV drama quality to it.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language with some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature release from Team Downey, the production company that Downey and his wife started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Book of Life

Le Chef (Comme un chef)


In France, chef = cool.

In France, chef = cool.

(2012) Comedy (Cohen Media Group) Jean Reno, Michael Youn, Raphaelle Agogue, Julien Boisselier, Salome Stevenin, Serge Lariviere, Issa Doumbia, Bun-hay Mean, Pierre Vernier, Santiago Segura, Genevieve Casile, Andre Penvern, Rebecca Miquel, James Gerard, Henri Payet, Franck de la Personne, Celine Caussimon, Jeanne Ferron. Directed by Daniel Cohen

Florida Film Festival 2014

Sacre Cordon Bleu!! If there is one thing the French love more than….well, love, it’s cuisine. Those Michelin stars are a really big deal in France.

Just ask Alexandre Lagarde (Reno). He has parlayed his three star status into a lucrative career with several restaurants, a television show and a frozen food line to his name. However, life isn’t rosy for him; he’s lost his fire and inspiration. His restaurants are owned by a corporate mogul whose snarky son Stanislas (Boisselier) would like nothing more than to see Alexandre, whom he considers old-fashioned and out-dated, retired to the Gulag of the French countryside and his golden boy Cyril Boss (Gerard), a devotee of molecular gastronomy, installed in the flagship restaurant Cargo Lagarde. Alexandre of course is livid about this; how humiliating it would be to be forced out of the restaurant that he built and bears his name.

The guidebook reviewers will soon be checking out Alexandre’s spring menu and both Stanislas and Cyril are confident that the more modern-thinking guidebook critics will strip Alexandre of at least one of his stars which would contractually allow Stanislas to fire Alexandre from his own restaurant. The great chef’s troubles are also extending to his home life; his daughter Amandine (Stevenin) is getting ready to deliver her thesis on Russian literature, a subject Alexandre cares about as much about as he cares about the spring menu at McDonald’s. Things are tense with Amandine who resents her father for caring more about his restaurant than he does about her.

Jacky Bonnot (Youn) doesn’t have any Michelin stars yet but he is sure he deserves at least a few. He’s got tremendous talent and a flair for vegetables; they whisper to him. Unfortunately, he’s insufferably mule-headed and arrogant, never a good combination in the kitchen, and is fired from job after job. This exasperates his pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (Agogue) who moves back in with her parents who encourage her to get back together with Jacky because he’s such a good chef. Realizing that she’s serious, he gets whatever job he can, in this case painting the exterior of an old folks home.

Through a fairly serendipitous set of circumstances, Jacky catches the eye of Alexandre who gives him an unpaid internship at Cargo Lagarde. Jacky’s talents get him the position Alexandre’s right hand in the kitchen and his prickly personality and stubborn refusal to compromise earn him the enmity of the other chefs. Jacky at last has his shot but is it on a sinking ship? And will Jacky torpedo his own chances at achieving his dreams?

It’s hard to find comedies like this these days as it seems that most Hollywood comedies rely on star comedians (i.e. Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Melissa McCarthy), all-out raunch, going big on outrage or just throwing as many jokes at the screen as possible and seeing what sticks. Le Chef tells its story honestly and while the plot may not be anything extraordinary it is told well and manages to make us laugh along the way at fairly regular intervals.

Reno is intensely likable even when his character is being a bit of a jerk. Reno is one of the most versatile actors in the world, being equally comfortable in action films, dramas and comedies and adept in all three. His presence is welcome in any film whether it’s made in Hollywood or France and he’s one of those actors that will motivate me to go see whatever movie he’s in even if it is in a supporting role.

Youn is a well-known comedian in France and while I’m not personally familiar with his work, I’m told that his performance here is fairly typical for him. His Jacky has a fine dining soul in a fast food world and therein much of the comedy of the movie’s first third arises. Jacky is a prickly bastard but you still end up rooting for him despite his arrogance and stubbornness. Hey, nobody’s perfect, right?

The film utilizes some really clever moments nicely and while it occasionally descends into low comedy unnecessarily by the film’s end I was more than satisfied. Comedies are difficult to pull off properly and rarely make the kind of splash at festivals that dramas do but this was one of the better narrative features at this year’s festival and a welcome relief from the angst of the dramatic features.

REASONS TO GO: Reno is incredibly likable. Funny where it needs to be. Will give you a hankering for French food.

REASONS TO STAY: Descends into silliness occasionally.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ratatouille

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Last I Heard

Arbitrage


Arbitrage

"Richard Gere is a handsome man but he ain't no Tim Robbins"

(2012) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Nate Parker, Laetitia Casta, Josh Pais, Monica Raymond, Stuart Margolin, William Friedkin, Bruce Altman, Evelina Oboza, Larry Pine, Curtiss Cook. Directed by Nicholas Jarecki

 

All of us have some sort of moral code, ethics which guide us in our decision making process. Now those ethics might completely revolve around self-interest, or perhaps have some inkling of the greater good somewhere deep down. It is truly disturbing how easily our moral compasses can slowly shift from true north into a different direction.

Robert Miller (Gere) is a Wall Street icon. He’s built one of the most profitable and respected firms in the world, is a billionaire many times over. Now as his career is winding down, he has much to be grateful for. He is in the midst of selling his company, after which he’ll semi-retire to spend more time with his family. His daughter Brooke (Marling) is the CFO of his company and has proven to be as brilliant as he, a worthy successor to his mantle if that’s what she chooses.

But life isn’t always what it seems. Miller has had enormous losses from a failed copper mine in Russia, losses he’s covered with capital from his own company, an SEC no-no. In order to cover those losses, he’s had to borrow money to make the books look rock solid so that the merger can go through. Miller has also been cheating on his wife Ellen (Sarandon) who is busy running their charitable foundation with Julie Cote (Victoria’s Secret model Casta).

It all begins to spiral out of control when a tragedy forces Miller to lie to his wife and the police about his whereabouts. The son of his deceased chauffeur, Jimmy Grant (Parker) comes to his rescue and finds himself in the crosshairs of eager detective Michael Bryer (Roth) who smells the lies several miles away and is making it his mission to nail Miller, willing to do anything – including ruin Grant’s life – to get what he wants. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on that multi-billion dollar merger.

Jarecki has an understanding of the financial industry and the titans who run it (his father was one) and brings it to life here. Often these days Wall Street corporate sorts are made the villain and the scapegoat in movies like this; certainly on paper it sounds like Robert Miller is a monster, given his attitude towards others and himself. Miller does some things that are awfully callous and yet you still like the guy and root for him to come out ahead – which is odd, because considering what guys like this did to the country you might want Miller to pay for his crimes tenfold. Chalk it up to Gere’s natural charisma.

Richard Gere is definitely the main reason to see this; he has delivered his best performance in 20 years, maybe ever. Gere is one of the few actors in Hollywood who is able to do thoroughly despicable things onscreen and yet become the rooting interest. That he does so here considering the economic climate is a tribute to his talents. Only Richard Gere could make us root for a philandering, cheating, lying, deceitful scumbag of a Wall Street CEO.

Marling does very well as Gere’s brilliant daughter. She is less vulnerable here than she was in Another Earth which might have been a better acting performance on the surface, but she’s holding her own with some acting heavyweights and makes her character the moral center of the piece and carries it off well. She’s a talent worth keeping your eye on – I think she’s got a brilliant future ahead of her.

Tim Roth plays a character not unlike the one he doses in “Lie to Me” although Det. Bryer is a little bit more edgy, a little more high-strung. His scenes with Nate Parker are some of the best in the movie. Parker is another talent with sky-high potential; he infuses Jimmy Grant with dignity as a former con trying to get his life back together again.

Jarecki has written an interesting script that keeps you on the edge of your seat at times. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and in Miller’s case, that old adage is certainly true. He may be a wealthy man but he is not rich. This is more than a fall of the rich and powerful parable, or a commentary on the callousness of the bussiness-ocracy that is running our country de facto these days.  It is also a morality tale on how the corruption of an individual can come in a subtle and seemingly harmless way – and then before they know it wreak complete and irrevocable change on that person’s soul.

NOTE: This movie was premiered at Sundance earlier this week and was screened at the Enzian Theater in Maitland, Florida as part of the Sundance Festival USA program in which films from the Festival were brought to nine theaters around the country. While at Sundance, the film was picked up for distribution by Lionsgate/Roadhouse Attractions and will be released sometime later this year, in all likelihood on a limited basis.

REASONS TO GO: A gripping story of moral compromise. Outstanding performances by Gere, Parker, Roth and Marling. Looks like a movie that cost much more to make than it did.

REASONS TO STAY: You might find yourself hating yourself for rooting for such a rotten guy as Robert Miller.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and plenty of bad language. There is a disturbing image involving a car accident as well as some drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicholas Jarecki’s dad Henry has been a commodities trader, psychiatrist, entrepreneur and was the co-founder of Moviefone; two of his siblings (Andrew and Eugene) are also film directors and Eugene is likewise debuting a film at Sundance this year (The House I Live In).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: N/A. Too soon to tell as the movie has yet to be released and has only played thus far at Sundance.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call

WEALTH LOVERS: The scenes in the townhouse where Robert Miller lives were filmed in the home of director Jarecki’s father which has been called the most expensive home in New York remaining in private hands.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Red Tails

Disgrace


Disgrace

An awkward silence ensues after John Malkovich asks Jessica Haines for a loan.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) John Malkovich, Jessica Haines, Eriq Ebouaney, Paula Arundelli, Fiona Press, Antoinette Engel, David Dennis, Michael Richard, Natalie Becker, Charles Tertiens. Directed by Steve Jacobs

The consequences of our actions are utterly and completely our own – at least, most of the time. When we perform actions that beget disastrous consequences, then we fall into disgrace.

David Lurie (Malkovich) is a professor of Romantic literature at a university in Capetown, South Africa. He is an arrogant man who teaches poetry without really understanding it. Middle aged, he is divorced and estranged from his family, and spends much of his time taking up with black prostitutes. When he engages in an affair with a mixed race student (Engel) of his, he is found out and brought before a disciplinary board.

However, he refuses to defend himself for, by his lights, following his natural instincts. Given no other option, the board dismisses Lurie, which surprises and shocks him – he fully expected to escape sanction of any kind. His career ruined, he finds sanctuary on his daughter’s farm.

Lucy (Haines) is a lesbian who grows organic crops and takes care of dogs in a rugged part of the country. She is assisted by Petrus (Ebouaney), who does most of the heavy lifting and whom David develops an immediate distrust for. He tells Lucy he doesn’t think she’s safe on the farm with Petrus around.

In the meantime, he helps out the local vet with performing euthanasia on dogs. It’s the only job he can really get. He is actually beginning to put his life back together – until something horrible happens, something that will test his limits as much as anything else in his life to that point had.

Aussie filmmaker Jacobs has taken an award-winning novel from South African writer J.M. Coetzee and turned it into a stark, unyielding look at hubris. The landscapes here are soulless and colorless, from the muted colors of the university to the desolation of the countryside of the Eastern Cape.

Lurie is much like that, only reversed – his desolation is on the inside. Outwardly, he can quote the flowery poetry of Byron, whom he most identifies with – but inwardly he doesn’t understand it, is incapable of it. Or, if he is capable, chooses not to because of his own hubris.

Malkovich does a stellar job as Lurie. While his Afrikaner accent has a tendency to slip now and again, he captures the essence of Lurie in his granite façade, his opinionated stare. This is not a very nice man, and bad things happen to him, much of which is of his own device. Haines does a pretty good job in support of Malkovich. She manages to stand up beside him without being overpowered by him. That’s no easy task, as many actors can attest.

Although I’m not familiar with the source material, I understand that Coetzee’s original work was taken as a political allegory about the status of the white male in the changing South African society. I don’t get that as much from the movie, which seems to be more of a morality play about hubris and pride. There are allusions to Biblical wrath of God type of stuff happening to David Lurie, although unlike Job he brought many of his troubles on himself and in doing so, brought them upon others.

There is a lot going on in this movie and nearly all of it is under the surface. That does make for a pretty solid workout in the mental gym, which is not what the general moviegoing public is necessarily after. Unfortunately, I’m not exactly sure if I caught the nuances I needed to; they may have been more subtle than I’m used to, or else I just missed them entirely. In any case, this is a very solid movie that is going to provoke some thought and maybe even a little debate. What’s it all about? Probably not what I think it is; but I’m probably not wrong either.

WHY RENT THIS: A powerful performance by Malkovich is framed by a stark cinematic shell. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The violence is sudden and ferocious and might put off some.

FAMILY VALUES: The film went unrated, but there were some scenes of sudden and terrifying violence, including a rape. There is also some very adult themes as well as some very adult language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Steve Jacobs is married to Anna Maria Monticelli, who adapted the J.M. Coetzee novel into a screenplay.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.1M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie just about broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Bang Bang Club