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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Dynamite Warrior (Khon fai bin)


Dynamite Warrior (Khon fai bin)

Just a little missile surfing.

(Magnolia) Dan Chupong, Leo Putt, Panna Rittikrai, Samart Payakarun, Kanyapak Suworakood, Somdet Kaew-ler, Ampon Rattanawong. Directed by Chalerm Wongpin

Thailand, with the success of Tony Jaa and his Ong-Bak movies is developing into another center of kinetic action movies. For those of us who love the genre, that’s very good news indeed.

Like several Hong Kong action movies of the mid-90s, there is a kind of willingness to bend and mix genres with absolute abandon. It can be said that the action is the central focus of the film, it’s raison d’être and while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it can be a bit jarring for Western audiences more used to less chaotic filmmaking.

There is a plot here, however Hunter Thompson-esque it might be. Jone Bang Fai (Chupong) is a mysterious masked bandit that uses home-made rockets (that he often rides into the fray on) and acts as a kind of protector of the poor farmers of rural Thailand in the 1920s. He has a bit of an ulterior motive however; he is seeking a man with a unique tattoo on his chest who murdered his parents years ago. Revenge, apparently, is not only a dish best served cold, it can come with peanut sauce as well.

Lord Wang (Putt) is seeking to profit from Thailand’s slow move to industrialization by selling tractors to rural farmers, who are resisting the change and preferring to use water buffalo as they have for generations. Wang’s solution is to set a vicious escaped thief (Kaew-ler) with a penchant for cannibalism to steal all the water buffalo. Of course this sets off Fai like a mutha.

However, all bets are off when Fai squares off against a buffalo trader with formidable magical powers and realizes this may be the man he’s been seeking. He cannot defeat the trader on his own, so he seeks the Black Wizard (Rittikrai) who informs him that he can only rob the sorcerer of his powers with the menstrual blood of a virgin that he just so happens to have handy in the form of his niece (Suworakood). However, the Black Wizard being…well, EVIL…has his own plans and his agenda may not be exactly conducive to peace and serenity.

Where to begin? My brain is still spinning after witnessing this unholy concoction. It looks like a western and carries many of the plot elements that can be found in that genre. It’s also a martial arts movie, with muay thai warriors inflicting all sorts of mayhem on each other. It’s also a fantasy with elements of Thai mysticism, and yet it’s accurate to its period.

There is a lot of wire work (which we haven’t seen much of in the Thai action movies that have been released in the States) and a great deal of mayhem. Some of the scenes are fairly graphic in their violence but the overall tone is comedic and light. There is a good deal of concentration on menstruation here (Fai asks the niece if she’s menstruating yet which in this country would get you smacked in the face) which may be a bit unsettling unused to the cultural differences between Thailand and the West.

The plot takes a great number of twists and turns until you feel like you’ve been twisted into a pretzel trying to follow it. Much of the story is told in flashback, and at times it can be jarring while at others you don’t realize you’re watching a flashback until it’s done. As with many Asian films, the acting can be over-the-top with an emphasis on exaggeration, something that while is perfectly legitimate in Eastern cinema is frowned upon here.

It can be hard to overcome cultural biases, and I’ll admit that mine made it difficult for me to completely embrace this movie. I’m all for action but not for its own sake; the audiences in Asia are a bit more lax in that regard and there’s nothing wrong for that. Therefore my rating is probably a bit lower than the movie deserves. I will say that I admire the form and the filmmaking, and some of the action is delightful to watch. If they had kept the plot a bit simpler, I might have enjoyed this a bit more. However, in all fairness, this wasn’t a movie made for me or my sort and those with more open minds in terms of plot will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

WHY RENT THIS: A fine example of Asian everything-but-the-kitchen-sink cinema. Some of the action sequences are just sick.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting can be a trifle over-the-top and the story is overly complicated and hard to follow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence is kinetic and cartoonish and there are a lot of sexual references in the movie (although no sex) as well as some icky scenes of cannibalism and demons; I would probably limit this to mature younger teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rittikrai, a veteran of the Thai film industry, was also the stunt choreographer for the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a nice but short featurette on the make-up effects required to give the Black Wizard his extra-gooeyness.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Timecrimes