Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween


Trick or treat!!

(2018) Family (Columbia) Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Ken Jeong, Jack Black, Chris Parnell, Bryce Cass, Peyton Wich, Shari Headley, Christian Finlayson, Matthew Jose Vasquez, Courtney Cummings, Jessi Goel, Drew Scheid, Taylor Siva, Sydney Bullock, Jason Looney, Kendrick Cross, Deja Dee. Directed by Ari Sandel

 

I always look askance at a young adult author whose book series is described as a “phenomenon.” The only audience more fickle than adults are kids. Phenomenons come and go with the regularity of Trump tweets.

In this sequel set in the universe of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, two young would-be entrepreneurs (and middle school students) Sonny (Taylor) and Sam (Harris) unexpectedly find an unfinished Stine manuscript in a creepy old house and free Slappy, the malevolent ventriloquist dummy (voiced by Mick Wingert) is brought to life. At first, all he wants is a family of his own, which makes Sonny’s big sister Sarah (Iseman) suspicious although their single mom Kathy (McLendon-Covey) is blissfully unaware that the dummy is sentient. When Slappy is ultimately refused, he decides to get himself some revenge – by using his magic to bring to life Stine-influenced Halloween decorations and turn the sleepy upstate New York own into perpetual Halloween.

The movie doesn’t compare favorably with the first one; although Black (as author R.L. Stine) is in the film, he doesn’t show up until the very end in what is a glorified cameo, although he does set up a Goosebumps 3 should Columbia elect to make one. A little more Black would have gone a long way, but to be fair he was busy making a competing film and was unable to participate fully in this one.

That leaves us with the kids to carry the film and quite frankly that’s not something they’re capable of quite yet. Their performances are inconsistent and frequently wooden. Still, the movie does okay thanks to some fairly nifty special effects and the character of Slappy who makes a delightful villain for the younger set.

REASONS TO SEE: Slappy makes an outstanding kidflick villain.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too much like the first.
FAMILY VALUES: There are mildly scary sequences, rude humor, some light profanity, and images of monsters and creatures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jack Black and Madison Iseman were both in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle but unlike here, they didn’t share any screen time together.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere,  Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House With a Clock In Its Walls
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Afterward

The Boy, The Dog and the Clown


Two-thirds of the title characters.

(2019) Family (Cinedigm) Adrien Lyon, Gabriel Dell Jr., Kiki Del Vecchio, Kenny Johnston, Jennifer Christopher, Mitzi Lynton, Michael Gandolfini, Khorr Ellis, Foxy the Dog. Directed by Nick Lyon

 

When you are a certain age, the world is full of possibilities. The impossible is possible because you haven’t yet learned about boundaries and limits. Magic is real because you haven’t learned differently. Experience teaches us that there are things that are not real but until then, everything could be.

Adrien (Lyon) is a ten-year-old boy who is at that age of possibility, but he’s already received one major body blow; his father passed away. The two had been close and his mom (Del Vecchio) worries about him. One day while wandering on the beach by Santa Monica Pier he meets a sad clown walking his dog. The clown doesn’t speak per se, other than to make a series of gibberish noises but he manages to communicate his sadness to Adrien. It’s an emotion Adrien understands all too well and he helps the clown turn his frown upside down without a sound. In return, the clown performs a magic trick for Adrien, making a butterfly appear in his hand.

Adrien is entranced and begins to hang out with the clown regularly. Of course his mom is wary but the clown seems harmless enough and when Adrien asks if his new friend can join them on a camping trip for his birthday, mom says yes. They are joined by his Uncle Steven (Johnston) and Aunt Michelle (Christopher). Steven is a psychologist who is concerned about the clown and Adrien’s seeming belief that magic is real (the clown conjures butterflies that nobody else but Adrien can see, and when Uncle Steven sends Adrien and his new friend on a snipe hunt, Adrien actually captures a snipe although – again – only Adrien and the clown can see it.

When the dog runs after a squirrel into the woods and Adrien chases after it and gets lost, pandemonium ensues. Adrien is in a desperate situation with dark coming on and bears wandering around nearby. It will take some real magic to get Adrien back home safely.

Nick Lyon is best known for directing direct-to-cable movies for The Asylum, a production group that specializes in genre B-movies, some of which are fairly violent. This is as far from that kind of film as you can get; there is definitely a family tone here and the movie is suitable for all ages in that regard.

What I really like about the movie is the mythic feel to it; not in a Disney-esque sense but in the kind of children’s books that I myself read as a child. The clown is not the scary kind of clown (except in a couple of scenes which adults might find creepy) for the most part unless you have a fear of clowns which isn’t uncommon.

The problem here is mainly with the performances. It sounds like everyone is reading their lines rather than saying them. It doesn’t help that some of the dialogue is stiff and unnatural. That really hinders the movie from displaying any charm which a movie like this desperately needs to be successful.

I wanted to like the movie more than I did. It’s not that it’s a bad movie; there’s a lot going for it here, particularly in the concept. I liked Dell as the clown; at least he has energy. So does the younger Lyon as Adrien but the rest of the adult cast is just flat. It’s like community theater on-screen and while that’s a hoot when it’s your own community, it gets to be like watching someone else’s home movies after awhile.

REASONS TO SEE: Contains an interesting mythic quality.
REASONS TO AVOID: Weak Performances throughout the cast.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrien is the son of the director and the inspiration for the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Knives and Skin

Abnormal Attraction


In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

(2018) Horror Comedy (Random Media) Malcolm McDowell, Leslie Easterbrook, Nathan Reid, Melanie Iglesias, Jason Leavy, Michael Buscemi, Ron Jeremy, Gilbert Gottfried, Tyler Mane, Bruce Davison, Jim Hanks, Carly Brooke, Krista Ayne, Bethany Watson, Courtney Baxter, Rebecca Ruber, Michael Barra, Nicole Balsam, Michelle Taylor, Renae Geerlings, Lesleh Donaldson. Directed by Michael Leavy

 

Prejudice is deeply ingrained into out culture. That which is different than us is generally regarded with deep suspicion, whether a different race, religion or even political affiliation. What about creatures that aren’t even human? What could be more different than that – and how likely would it be, if such existed, that they would be regarded with the most suspicion of all.

In the world of Abnormal Attraction the monsters of myth, legend and literature coexist alongside of humans. Vampires walk the streets at night; werewolves howl at the moon and yeti sell snow cones from ice cream trucks. Nick Lane (Re.id) doesn’t really care about all that; he’s a therapist who deals with interspecies relationships. He’s also engaged to Catherine (Iglesias) although the relationship has hit a bit of a rocky patch. He needs to spend some time with her and he asks his colleague Dr. Stanley Cole (Davison) to take over running an AA meeting for him in order to do that.

But AA doesn’t stand for what you think it stands for – unless you thought it stood for Abnormal Attraction. It’s a 12-step group for humans who are obsessed with other species. Dr. Cole is totally unprepared for the type of stories the participants in the meeting have to tell! In the meantime, Madame Hildie (Easterbrook) and her partner-in-crime the Boogeyman (McDowell) have plans to make the human race go the way of the dinosaur – and monsters will at last rule the earth!

If this sounds like a big budget studio movie with plenty of special effects, well, maybe it should have been. The monster make-up ranges from decent to downright WTF (like the Purple People Eater which looks like a really bad case of the measles) and the Cyclops (Mane) who let’s just say that his curtains don’t match the drapes.

The horror comedy mostly revolves around the scatological and the sexual with the latter dominating. My notes read that this feels like a movie made by 12-year-old boys for 12-year-old boys; Police Academy veteran Easterbrook probably felt right at home. There’s a whole lot of raunchiness and slapstick humor which may or may not appeal to you personally; humor is a highly individual thing and if you like your humor highbrow, this is definitely not the film for you. Truth be told though, I found some of the sequences really funny, like when Frank Stein (Hanks) explains why he doesn’t like to be called Frankenstein. Maybe not comedy gold, but at least comedy bronze.

But the movie’s heart is at least in the right place – there is a message of tolerance and of being non-judgmental that some movies with more intellectual appeal than this failed to get across as well including the most recent Best Picture winner. You could do a lot worse for entertainment value than this as long as you keep your expectations low.

REASONS TO SEE: You can’t fault the filmmakers for lack of ambition, only lack of budget.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor seems aimed at 12-year-old boys.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexual innuendo and sexual slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While on the festival circuit the film was nominated for 24 awards, winning nine of them.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cast a Deadly Spell
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Wind

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)


Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid try to bring balance to the Force.

(2018) Science Fiction (Disney) Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, André Holland, Rowan Blanchard, Bellamy Young, David Oyelowo (voice), Conrad Roberts, Yvette Cason, Will McCormack, David MacPherson, Akemi Look, Tim Kang, Jessica Rockwell. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

As a boy I read – eagerly, I might add – Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. I was fascinated by the amazing worlds she created and thrilled to the adventures of the intrepid Murry children. It was a favorite of mine but I haven’t read it in almost since I was 11 or 12 and the details have become lost to me.

Ava DuVernay has created a nine figure-budgeted version – much has been made that she’s the first African-American female director to be at the helm for a movie with a budget more than $100 million – which is not all sizzle and no steak precisely; it’s more accurately that the steak has been overwhelmed by the sizzle.

Meg Murry (Reid) is depressed and acting out to a large degree. Her physicist father Alex (Pine) disappeared four years earlier and her principal (Holland) as well as her mother (Raw) are both beginning to gently push her into letting him go and come to the realization that he’s gone for good. Then into their lives – including her precocious adopted brother Charles Wallace (McCabe) who might be more brilliant than her and her father put together – comes Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), a kind of kooky and eccentric woman who tells her that her father is alive in another part of the universe where he had traveled by the sheer force of his mind and he needs her help in returning home.

Through Mrs. Whatsit she meets Mrs. Who (Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Winfrey), equally eccentric and just as powerful. The two Murry kids along with Calvin (Miller) who’s kind of sweet on Meg, accompany the three Missus to rescue Alex. But he’s being held captive by an evil force of energy called The It (having nothing to do with Pennywise the Clown) and it is growing rapidly to the point that if her father can’t be rescued the Universe will be overrun by the It.

The movie is a massive misstep by one of the most talented directors working today. The story gets lost in a turgid script that emphasizes the visuals (which to be fair are incredibly imaginative and a literal joy to behold) over the story. Worse yet, the dialogue is wretched; people in this film don’t talk like real people. At least Mrs. Who has an excuse; she’s programmed (essentially) to talk in affirmations, but everyone else seems to mouth platitudes that after awhile grow wearisome.

Winfrey, Kaling, Raw, Pine and Witherspoon are all fine actors and they do very well here. Reid can sometimes be a bit smarmy but for the most part she is asked to carry the film on her young shoulders and she doesn’t disgrace herself. McCabe however is Hella annoying and he brings to mind poor Jake Lloyd from Star Wars Episode One as a candidate for worst juvenile performance of all time.

The movie failed to find an audience during its theatrical release in March. Some blame it on the fact that the Murry family was interracial, although the African-ness of Black Panther didn’t seem to hurt it any. I’m sure the success of the Marvel film had an impact on the audience for A Wrinkle in Time but I also think poor reviews and bad word-of-mouth doomed it. In all honesty, I don’t think A Wrinkle in Time is a bad film but it’s not a very good one either. It’s kind of bloated and the message of family, hope and tolerance gets completely lost. I have no doubt DuVernay is going to be making important films for decades to come; this one though likely won’t be on her highlight reel years from now.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are insanely imaginative. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are perfectly cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue torpedoes the film. McCabe’s performance is overbearing most of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Although suitable for most children, the film contains scenes of peril as well as some themes that may go over the heads of some of the less socially developed kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two more Murry children (twins Sandy and Dennys) who appeared in the novel were cut from the film version.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holy Mountain
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bright

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword


Pulling the sword from the stone was easy; uniting the kingdom was hard.

(2017) Fantasy Action (Warner Brothers) Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Djimon Hounsou, Astrid Bergés-Frisbey, Aidan Gillen, Freddie Fox, Craig McGinlay, Tom Wu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Neil Maskell, Annabelle Wallis, Geoff Bell, Poppy Delevingne, Millie Brady, Nicola Wren, Wil Coban, Bleu Landau, Jacqui Ainsley, Lorraine Bruce, Georgina Campbell. Directed by Guy Ritchie

 

One of the most enduring legends in Western European history is that of King Arthur. Loosely based on an actual Anglican King shortly after the fall of Rome, he has become associated with all that is good about English royalty; a fair and just ruler, a mighty warrior and a man wise enough to know his own failings, his court at Camelot is widely characterized bittersweetly as a brief and shining moment in history.

King Uther Pendragon (Bana) of England is by all accounts a good and just king but he is overthrown by his ambitious brother Vortigen (Law) who is aided by demonic black magic. Uther is killed but his little son Arthur is saved and whisked off into obscurity. As Vortigen rules with cruelty and fear, Arthur grows up in the streets of London, raised by prostitutes and becoming a petty crime lord and pimp. Vortigen has become increasingly paranoid due to a prophecy that says he will be killed by the true king and his throne taken. There is a sword called Excalibur buried deep in the rock near the king’s castle and by legend only the true king can pull it from its sheath. All men in the kingdom of a certain age are required to have a try at pulling it but only Arthur succeeds.

Rescued by Bedivere (Hounsou), one of his father’s last remaining knights, and a beautiful Mage (Bergés-Frisbey) Arthur undergoes intensive training on how to fight. Arthur is reluctant to help – he wants no part of the sword or the responsibility of kingship but as his friends are attacked and imperiled, Arthur soon realizes that he cannot avoid his destiny. Accepting the power of the sword, he proves to be a nearly unbeatable warrior but Vortigen is vicious and ends up capturing the Mage and the son of one of Arthur’s best friends who has been killed by Vortigen personally. Ordered to surrender or watch his friends be executed, Arthur must become the King he was meant to be if he is to save his friends – and England.

This is certainly not your father’s Arthur. Reimagined by Ritchie who has previously messed with Sherlock Holmes – another British icon – the film is effects-heavy and somewhat darker than Mallory’s better-known version of the English hero. There are some fairly impressive creature effects here although nothing particularly groundbreaking. There are a few liberties taken with the plot – there is an obviously Asian martial arts instructor at Camelot centuries before Marco Polo opened up trade relations. That’s a big whoopsie.

The film is mostly grey in hue which gives a kind of dreary atmosphere. It doesn’t help matters that the battle sequences are mostly shot with handheld cameras which while giving a sense of the chaos of battle also give the audience vertigo. I’ll never understand why directors think that’s artistic; it’s just freaking annoying.

Hunnam has been given some high-profile roles over the past few years and I think he shows his potential most here. He’s not really your typical action hero and that’s a good thing but it can make things a little tough on directors who aren’t used to a screen presence like his. Not every director knows what to do with him. Ritchie does,, however, and that bodes well for Hunnam’s future.

Law has had a good career and does exceptionally well here as the villain. He’s played villainous roles before and seems well-suited to them; as Vortigen he’s as vile a villain as can be which makes for good cinema. A great hero requires a great villain, after all. Sadly Law is sabotaged by a script in which the plot meanders and is often disjointed and confusing. Despite the spectacle and despite some well-staged action sequences, I found some of the film boring which is a cardinal sin for action films.

This was meant to be the first episode in a new shared cinematic universe which was slated for at least six films. The film bombed at the box office so it seems unlikely short of a miraculous life on VOD and home video that the series will continue. There were to be installments concentrating on other Arthurian heroes such as Merlin, Guinevere and Lancelot – none of whom appear in this film – but that ambitious plan seems to be moot at this point. The thing about cinematic universes is that in order for people to want to see the other films in the series they’re first going to have to be wowed and excited by the first film and that simply doesn’t happen here. There are some good cinematic ideas and Law is a terrific villain but there just isn’t enough to make anyone eagerly anticipate the next film in the series.

REASONS TO GO: Hunnam acquits himself with more confidence here. Law makes for a hiss-worthy villain.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is extremely disjointed. The film suffers from an excess of shaky-cam in the battle sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is bloodshed and violence, some sexually suggestive material and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hunnam was introduced to the Arthurian legend by the John Boorman film Excalibur,  a movie he has watched repeatedly over the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Arthur (2004)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Wakefield

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

(2016) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Dan Hedaya, Jon Voight, Gemma Chan, Ron Perlman, Zoë Kravitz, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Peter Bretmeier, Kevin Guthrie, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Ellie Haddington, Johnny Depp, Anne Wittman. Directed by David Yates

 

J.K. Rowling is a household name and for all the right reasons. A single mum living on the dole at one time, she wrote a fabulous book about a boy wizard named Harry Potter that while ostensibly for children was also well-written enough that adults got into it too. Seven books later, she was a billionaire and the wealthiest woman in Britain save for the Queen herself. Admirably, she gave much of her wealth away, returning it to the government whose assistance allowed her to survive while she wrote her books. Their investment in her paid off.

One of the textbooks that Harry Potter studied at Hogwart’s was Newt Scamander’s bestselling textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He even had his own Chocolate Frog wizard card. So how did he get to be so famous?

Rowling – who wrote the script as the first of five movies – set this some seventy years before the Potter films and across an ocean. Scamander (Redmayne) arrives at Ellis Island in New York City in 1926 en route to Arizona. Newt is a magizoologist – an expert in magical creatures. He is carrying a ratty old suitcase with him, one with a latch that just won’t stay closed. Inside his TARDIS-like case is a whole ecology where specimens of the various creatures he has collected are residing. Some are being relocated to places where they have a better chance of surviving. None of them are allowed in the United States.

Rather than having a Ministry of Magic, the wizards in the New World are governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America – MACUSA for short. They have recently emerged from a battle with the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) and they are a bit by-the-book these days. When Newt’s case is accidentally switched with the case of Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), an aspiring baker and No-Maj (the American equivalent of a muggle, or person without magical skills), chaos ensues as several creatures escape.

Demoted MACUSA agent Tina Goldstein (Waterston) arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard but when the case he is carrying is revealed to have baked goods in it, he is released. Tina and Newt end up joining forces to re-capture the beasts with the assistance of Tina’s sister Queenie (Sudol) who has precognitive powers, and Jacob. However, with Chief Auror (magical investigator) Percival Graves (Farrell) hot on their trail, they need to find the creatures quickly.

But that’s not all that’s going on. A malevolent magical force has been wreaking havoc on the city and there is a society of No-Maj activists led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton) and her abused son Credence (Miller) and daughters Chastity (Murray) and Modesty (Wood-Blagrove) are helping to create an atmosphere in which the magical community is feeling threatened. Keeping the existence of wizards and witches may no longer be possible when Newt’s beasts begin to make their presence felt.

This has been justifiably one of the most hyped movies of the year and certainly one of the most eagerly anticipated. Does it measure up with the Potter franchise? Well, yes and no. From a sheer spectacle standpoint, the beasts themselves are entirely magnificent. Yates has also created a very living and breathing jazz age New York City and in many ways that’s being overlooked by those praising (and a few damning) the film. The environments both magical and real are visually compelling and inviting.

Part of the issue is that while millions are familiar with Hogwart’s and the world of Harry Potter, in essence Rowling is starting from scratch. The Wizarding World is distinct and different from the world being built in the Fantastic Beasts series. Sure, they name-check Albus Dumbledore (and he is due to appear in the second film of the series) and of course Scamander himself is name-checked in the very first Potter film but there is little overlap. Therefore there is a ton of exposition so the movie feels turgid at times.

Fogler as Jacob felt far more sympathetic and heroic to me than Redmayne did. Of course, Scamander is somewhat socially awkward and tends to isolate himself from people and wizards, being more comfortable around animals. Still, Redmayne is rather bland in his portrayal of the wizard and my attention is less on him than on Jacob who has no magical skills but has a ton of heart. His romance with Queenie is sweet and touching and the most emotional moment in the film belongs to Fogler and for my money, that is the moment that will stay with me from this particular movie.

While I’ve been perhaps a little overly critical of the movie, don’t think for a moment that this isn’t sheer entertainment. Yates is a veteran at creating magical spectacles and the movie retains the feel of the later-stage Potter films that Yates directed. Hopefully the succeeding movies won’t need to set up as much backstory and be able to just tell the story at hand.

REASONS TO GO: The fantastic beasts are enchanting as are the special effects. Fogler steals the show. The place and period is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Redmayne is actually rather vanilla here and doesn’t seem capable of bearing the weight of the franchise on his shoulders as Radcliffe did. There is a ton of exposition here which slows down the pacing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of a fantasy nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The grey and yellow scarf that Newt wears is a nod to his origins as a member of Hufflepuff house at Hogwart’s.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spiderwick Chronicles
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Loving

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
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