REVIEW: Doctor Strange

4 11 2016

There are so many movies of the VFX-driven variety, most of which have interchangeable and ultimately forgettable spectacles. Films that feel as if they want to try something new, or head into uncharted waters, are a rarity. Genuine surprise and awe is hard to come by.

Color me delighted to report that “Doctor Strange” actually does manage to achieve true visual astonishment in its action set pieces. The titular hero, his allies and his pursuers do not just duel in urban areas. They bend space and time in a manner that’s appropriately gobsmacking, recalling to some extent the wow factor of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.”

Before you let your mind run away with you on that comparison, that’s primarily speaking of the feast for the eyes. “Doctor Strange” is a cut above the average Marvel Studios production, and I do not even mean that as damning with faint praise. The company has figured out a way to tell satisfying origin stories (“Iron Man,” “Ant-Man“) when the concern is establishing a character, not connecting to mythology or chronology.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s smug, silver-tongued surgeon turns into a dimension-hopping hero after seeking faith healing for his damaged hands. He’s appropriately equipped with smart-ass banter and lessons to learn while perfecting his manipulation of matter. Strange also has an exalted mentor in the Ancient One (a bald Tilda Swinton) and a menace to fight in her turncoat former mentee Kaecilius (a manbun-sporting Mads Mikkelsen). And maybe I was just reading too much into the score from Michael Giacchino, which sounded an awful lot like his work on “Star Trek,” but Strange also seems to have a Kirk-Spock dynamic with his straight-laced partner in crime Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The action unfolds predictably, but also beautifully and humorously. For all those who thought it would take a maverick like Terrence Malick or Harmony Korine to get Tilda Swinton to narrate trippy shots of alternate universes, guess what? It happened in a Marvel movie. Note to whoever is preparing a career highlight reel for Swinton’s lifetime achievement awards in a decade or so: feel free to use this as the backbone of the montage. B+3stars

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REVIEW: The Martian

24 10 2015

Since he burst onto the scene with 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon usually seems to play some version of that titular character. He’s had many a memorable movie and role in his decades-long career, but they almost inevitably come from the same mold of a loud, often brash man’s man. Damon might be one of the best at his particular brand of swagger, though it comes at the cost of getting caught up in an individual creation of his.

That changes for Damon with “The Martian,” a movie that reminds us of his star power since he’s tasked with essentially carrying it all on his shoulders.  While boasting a terrific ensemble, the heart of the story is a one-man show. Damon’s Mark Watney, a NASA botanist on a manned mission to Mars, gets stranded on the red planet after being presumed dead in a dust storm by the rest of his crew.

Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” or James Franco in “127 Hours,” Damon rises to the occasion of keeping things moving and interesting with no one to act opposite. This challenge actually brings out the best in Damon, as a matter of fact. For an actor who often draws strength from being the most powerful person in a given scene, not having anyone to beat makes him turn inwards. The result is one of his most heartfelt, moving performances to date.

While he focuses on survival, all of NASA works tirelessly on Watney’s rescue. This goes far beyond his fellow astronauts, led by Jessica Chastain’s steely yet humane Captain Lewis. Entire new spacecrafts must be built and engineered, which brings out the best in both jet propulsion lab head head Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and Donald Glover’s young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell. (Yes, Childish Gambino.)  China also gets involved in the humanitarian mission, making sure that NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and PR head Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) earn their salaries.

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