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





F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 11, 2016)

11 02 2016

I’ve made watching writer/director Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually” into somewhat of a December pastime, returning each year to remind myself that love is all around us, we are all perfect to someone and many more lessons. I should probably do the same with his latest film “About Time,” a love story that with less breadth but far more depth.

I don’t quite know or understand how the film got so overlooked when Universal released it in November 2013. (I was in London at the time, where the film was released earlier to a more solid commercial reception.) But this is Curtis at his most profound, offering not just a solid romantic yarn but a legitimately valuable guide on how to maximize happiness through life. Maybe in making it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I can will myself into heeding his advice more.

The film begins with a somewhat trite, if not completely hackneyed, premise: time travel. That tired plot device feels fresh when appropriated here by Curtis, who is far more interested in humanity than any of the mechanics. The men of the Lake family possess, somehow, the ability to travel back in time to places they have already been. Bill Nighy’s patriarch passes this information along to son Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) on his 21st birthday and allows him to decide how best to deploy the gift.

Tim, who at the time has relatively few graces with the opposite sex, chooses to focus on love. Ultimately, it leads him to pin down the perfect woman for him, Rachel McAdams’ Mary. While his courtship of her is sweet and entertaining, the traditional romantic arc only forms a portion of “About Time.” Curtis goes far beyond the traditional stopping point of the first kiss, the wedding or the birth of a child, examining the manifold pains and pleasures of everyday adult life. “Happily ever after” rarely feels as earned or sincere as it does here.

The film confronts some of the core tenets of how we find contentment and satisfaction in life by offering a look at how someone with boundless time might approach them. By walking in Tim’s shoes for two hours, we get the chance to view time travel not as a means of correcting the past or preventing a future. Rather, we can see how this fanciful premise might allow us to enrich and enjoy the present.





REVIEW: Spotlight

22 11 2015

SpotlightMany a procedural, be it “Zodiac” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” has created suspense by following a straight, chronological line towards its ultimate result or finding. Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” a story of the Boston Globe‘s uncovering of widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, takes a slightly different approach to achieve a similar goal. His screenplay, co-written with Josh Singer, treats the journalistic investigation like solving a Rubik’s Cube.

In order to understand the magnitude of the discovery made by the Spotlight team, a four-person squad of the Globe‘s finest inquirers, it is crucial to grasp just how complex and intertwined all the key players were. The molestation was committed by over eighty priests in the Boston area, which alone is a staggering and abhorrent finding. But the complex web of officials in the church, in the government and in the community who enabled the abuse and remained complicit in their silence makes for the real story. Not even the press, celebrated as it is in the film, gets off without a slap on the wrist.

“Spotlight” respects the work of the team enough not to simplify their work into a simplified narrative. It feels effortless to watch and manageable to comprehend since McCarthy directs the proceedings with great agility, pivoting from one strand of thought to another without ever causing motion sickness. Perhaps only when the film nears its foregone conclusion, the publication of the earth-shattering article, do we fully realize just how many crossed wires they had to untangle.

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REVIEW: Southpaw

15 08 2015

Jake Gyllenhaal trained hard to get ripped and toned for his role as boxer Billy Hope in “Southpaw,” yet the physical transformation may not represent most impressive facet of his performance.  Underneath the chiseled six-pack of abs and behind the battered face does not necessarily lie the spirit of a champion.  In fact, Hope most resembles a pitbull backed into the corner of a cage.

Gyllenhaal makes the truly courageous choice not to play his character with some kind of rough-hewn heart that always finds a way to break through his hardened exterior. Hope came up through the New York City foster care system, never making peace with his parents before they passed and ending up incarcerated more than once.  To boot, he lacks some basic literacy skills (he’s unable to spell the word “incarcerted” with his daughter) and needs the firm support system provided by his wife, Rachel McAdam’s Maureen, to make even the most common-sense of decisions.

In Gyllenhaal’s hands, Hope becomes borderline unsympathetic.  If his character were dropped into the self-destructive drug addict role that Christian Bale played in “The Fighter,” we might not root for him.  Plenty of times in “Southpaw,” I questioned whether my desire to see him triumph came simply from the fact that writer Kurt Sutter made this character the protagonist.

When tragedy hits Hope, we feel pain not because we watch a good man drawn into a maelstrom of grief and anguish.  We feel pain because Gyllenhaal makes sure we know that this a person clearly ill-equipped to come to terms with the enormity of his wealth, power, and standing. A 43-0 record in the ring has not transformed Hope in any way. He’s still the same kid from the shelters who did not have the smarts to stay out of trouble.

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REVIEW: Aloha

19 06 2015

Aloha posterResponding to the reactions to a film in a review is something I generally frown upon; however, I am willing to make an exception in the case of “Aloha.”  Before Sony could release any trailers or marketing materials, studio head Amy Pascal’s scathing comments about Cameron Crowe’s film hit the Internet and sealed its fate.  The film said the “goodbye” aloha before it could say the “hello” aloha.  And then, once the critics finally got ahold of the final product, the nail was in the coffin.

So when I finally got around to seeing “Aloha,” I came with unavoidably low expectations.  I did not seek to answer the question of whether it was good or bad; I just needed to know how bad.  Watching a film in that mindset makes for an entirely different experience, akin to being a child in a doctor’s office waiting for a shot with eyes clenched shut.  You know the pain will come soon but are clueless as to when.

I kept waiting for “Aloha” to come apart at the seams.  Maybe the relationship between paramilitary contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) and his spunky Air Force escort Allison Ng (Emma Stone, unconvincingly playing part-Asian) would just become a little too far-fetched.  Or perhaps Brian would wreck the marriage of his ex-flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), leaving the life she built with her kids and husband Woody (John Krasinski) in shambles and destroying all sympathy for the characters.  Any number of plot points, from the relations with native Hawaiian tribes to an odd space mission, could easily have gone south.

Yet, against the odds, “Aloha” manages to survive its shortcomings and remain a mostly enjoyable time at the movies.  Sure, the script could have benefitted from some retooled dialogue, a few reordered or rewritten scenes for the sake of clarity, and a narrower narrative scope.  As is, though, Crowe has the basis for a charming – but not disarming – romance with a superfluous side helping of story critiquing the military-industrial complex.

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REVIEW: To the Wonder

8 02 2015

To the Wonder” is probably the most Malickian (is that the right word – or would it be Malicky?) film that Terrence Malick has directed to date.  And that is not necessarily a good thing.

Like Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, Malick’s stylistic hallmarks have transcended merely serving their story.  They are a recognizable brand.  Malick is so avant-garde and experimental, however, that his brand lacks a lot of commercial appeal.  (Though plenty of young filmmakers shamelessly try to imitate him.)

“To the Wonder” plays like a guide to make a Malick movie, rote and rather passionless.  It boils down what makes him distinct as a director into a series of clichés.  The film documents scenes from a love triangle (as portrayed by Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel McAdams) as well as a few from a Catholic priest (Javier Bardem) that crosses their path at some point.  As usual with Malick, the engine moving everything forward is the philosophical and existential musings spewed by multiple narrators rather than a traditional “plot.”

Having voiceover from more than one person is not a problem, but “To the Wonder” stumbles by not firmly deciding on a main character or protagonist.  The film does not just feel unfocused; it feels remarkably undisciplined.  By not providing an entry point to the proceedings, Malick leaves his audience in a position on the outside looking in.

Granted, simply observing the film could be worse since “To the Wonder” is shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer behind iconoclastic films ranging from “The Tree of Life” to “Gravity” and “Birdman.”  While Lubezki hardly breaks boundaries or explores bold new territory here, even watching him on autopilot proves fascinating.  His technical proficiency combined with Malick’s eye for the beauty of nature makes for quite the dynamic duo.  They could even make a Sonic drive-in look magical – and in “To the Wonder,” they do just that.  C+2stars





REVIEW: A Most Wanted Man

27 07 2014

A Most Wanted ManDirector Anton Corbijn came into film through photography, a background which makes itself quite evident in “A Most Wanted Man.”  There’s a certain placidity and patience in the proceedings that seem to bear the mark of a photographer’s cool distance.

Corbijn’s perspective gives this adaptation of John Le Carre (the mind who gave us “The Constant Gardener” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy“) a distinct flavor, one that adds rather than detracts from the mix.  Though this spy film tackles counterterrorism, it lacks a definite endgame like “Zero Dark Thirty” had to push it along.  Instead, the focus is on the seemingly never-ending process of apprehending terrorists, not the final product of those efforts.

The calm collectedness and careful restraint of Corbijn does a great job highlighting the grimy, laborious legwork done by a Hamburg, Germany intel unit headed up by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann.  He has a knack for foresight and playing the long game, two traits that put him at odds with the more impetuous, results-driven German intelligence community (not to mention the American embassy, represented by Robin Wright’s ambassador Martha Sullivan).

Bachmann quietly enters the fray to handle the curious case of a Chechen, Issa Karpov, who washes up in Hamburg and enters the city’s network of Muslim terrorist cells.  His approach is to use this refugee as a pawn to gain access to the real power players and continue working up the chain.  Along the way, Bachmann must join forces some unwilling participants, including a shady banker (Willem Dafoe’s Tommy Brue) and a lawyer who provides counsel for terrorists (Rachel McAdams’ Annabel Richter).

“A Most Wanted Man” does drag on occasion, but it’s consistently interesting thanks to the way Corbijn’s direction allows us to savor the careful maneuvers of counterintelligence chess.  While the film might be a little less ostensibly artistic than his last outing, 2010’s “The American,” Corbijn’s chosen aesthetic for the piece suits the highly-plotted story quite well.  It also allows Philip Seymour Hoffman, in what will sadly be his last leading role, to quietly show his mastery over the craft of acting one final time.  B2halfstars