Tuesday’s Review – Doctor Strange (2016)

Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, comic book, comic books, fucking beautiful, fucking weird, magic, Marvel, Rachel McAdams, review, super powers, superhero, Tilda Swinton

I used to be one of those Marvel fangirls who would go and see a new release as soon as it was out. Now I tend to take my sweet time because there doesn’t seem to be any need to rush. I’m guarateend to love the film regardless but it’s becoming more like doing a Where’s Wally instead of watching a film. There can be no denying that Marvels films have become more than a little predictable of late. An underwritten big bad threatens the world and the good guy/guys have to save the day, probably involving something huge crashing to the ground. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a system that has worked for them and gives the audience everything they want from a superhero film. However, with the arrival of Phase 3 this year it was definitely the time to see something different. That started subtly with Civil War where we saw the good guys facing off against each other for a huge showdown. It wasn’t everything we hoped it would be but you can see that it’s starting to break the mould. The problem is that the formula is safe and adaptable enough for different themes, heroes, and genres. Marvel don’t want to risk losing fans when they know what works.

Which is why Doctor Strange always seemed like a massive risk. Of course, there are always anomalies and Marvel are always keen to take on a project that breaks the pattern. In 2015 Ant-Man took us away from the big time heroes like the Avengers and gave us a smaller tale that became more like a crime caper. Problems behind the scenes meant this was full of issues but it showed that there was room for different think. Like Ant Man, the story of Stephen Strange wasn’t one of the most widely known outside of comic book circles and wasn’t necessarily going to fit into the existing MCU. I mean, the minute you introduce magic into the world of superheroes then everything changes. Power is no longer measurable on a normal scale: this isn’t just about size and physical strength. Magic widens the limits of the possibility and means the rule book just got blown up. It could very easily have fucked up everything Marvel films has been doing over the last 10 years.

So Doctor Strange had a huge job to do: it needed to introduce us to its newest hero and explain the world of magic. It’s a big task that fills the 2 hour running time. Although, the first act is rather slow to get us anywhere. We first meet the egotistical but brilliant brain surgeon, Stephen Strange, who gets into a car accident that destroys his career. He’s helpless and desperate to get back to what he once was. If I’m honest, the first 30 minutes of this film was basically just an episode of House with Benedict Cumberbatch taking Hugh Laurie’s place as British actor playing a doctor who’s also a huge dick. I get that we needed to see why Strange was so desperate to get the use of his hands back but it all felt a bit too much like a parody.

When all hope looks lost, Stephen is directed to Nepal and a mysterious group of people who helped supposedly heal a man who couldn’t walk. Stephen meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who allows him to see the hidden dimensions that have remained hidden and sets him on a journey to learn to use magic for himself. As he learns, Strange learns that, as well as all the wonders he never knew about, there is untold danger within these different dimensions that constantly threaten humanity. It is up to Ancient One and her sorcerers to keep darkness away from the Earth. Darkness that is being summoned by her ex-student, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), to destroy humanity. Its up to Stephen, his mentor, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), to stop him.

There is a lot to take in when you watch Doctor Strange and the typical format of a Marvel film isn’t really the best place to try something so new. I mean Thor had to introduce much less than this and it had a hard time teaching the audience about Norse mythology whilst also leaving enough time for fighting. Doctor Strange only just manages to keep a handle on everything it’s trying to do and manages to introduce magic to the MCU in a really trippy and awesome way. When Stephen first meets the Ancient One, she sends him on a journey through dimensions that will definitely give a few hippies some 60s flashbacks. It’s a visual feast and is an incredible film to watch. The many out-of-body experiences and crazy architectural remodelling bring a new freshness to the usual superhero film. This manages to feel like every other Marvel film but, in so many ways, is something completely new.

Although, that isn’t to say it comes without its problems. Benedict Cumberbatch is remarkable in the title role as is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. Both are reliable actors who enjoy playing the outcasts of society and so they are well suited to the roles. The rest of the cast are more forgettable. Rachel McAdams is given especially short shrift as fellow doctor and love interest, Christine Palmer. Chiwetel Ejiofor, whilst setting up his role for the next instalment, makes a limited impression and the always delightful Mads Mikkelsen finds himself in the role of another underdeveloped Marvel villain. The main two aside, it is only Benedict Wong who makes any kind of lasting impression and that has little to do with the script.

Doctor Strange is a good film; it’s a very good film. I was super excited to see it and I was incredibly happy afterwards. However, it would be wrong to say that this is the turning point for Marvel. It is a fresh and new film in the midst of every other punch ’em up superhero film but, really, it’s still the same old Marvel underneath. Every time it looks as if a storyline is being allowed a modicum of freedom then its pulled back in. Despite the new ideas at play, this is the same structure as every other Marvel origin story and has the same flaws we are sick of seeing. It shows great potential for the future but Marvel really need to start giving their writers and directors more freedom. It was so close to perfection.

Tuesday’s Reviews – Spotlight (2016)

Catholic Church, films, journalism, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, review, true story

There was no real obvious contender for this years Best Picture Oscar. There were the three main possibilities The Revenant, The Big Short, and Spotlight. Then there was Room and Bridge of Spies which had both received a lot of attention but, in terms of this category, couldn’t really compete with the main three. Following on from these still realistic nominations there were the typical outsiders. Films that audiences loved and were great in their own way but that would never appeal to the voters. The Martian and Brooklyn were both films that people enjoyed but were never going to get the big prize. If you ask me, it was the final nomination Mad Max: Fury Road that really deserved the prize but I also have to admit that there was never any chance the voters were going to admit that George Miller’s masterpiece should win. So, it was always a bit of a mystery who would win last Sunday. All I knew is, I didn’t want it to be The Big Short.

Thankfully, Adam McKay’s disappointing look at the financial crisis of 2008 didn’t succeed and the more deserving Spotlight got its place in the, well, spotlight. It is the true story of the reporters from the Boston Globe who uncovered the years of abuse kept hidden by the Catholic Church back in 2002. It has a stellar cast and treats the real life drama with the respect it deserves. It is also very un-Oscary in its own way.

The narrative follows a small group of reporters who spend their time digging deep into the paper’s big stories. When a new boss takes over, he insists that they start looking into the accusations of abuse surrounding one particular priest. What they find is a  problem that runs much deeper than they could have ever imagined. With Catholicism being such an important part of society, the paper have to be careful how they handle the investigation and come across resistance from both the Church and its supporters. For much of the narrative, important and revealing documents are sealed during a legal case fighting to make them public.

It’s a difficult story to deal with and most of the “action” actually involves the group of journalists checking records, meeting sources, and discussing how to proceed. It doesn’t go down the typical Hollywood route and romanticise journalism. It shows the very long, painful and slow process that was needed to get all the facts. Despite the fact that the story broke nearly 15 years ago, Spotlight treats it in such a way that is seems fresh and just as much of an outrage as it was the first time. This isn’t a Hollywood tale

Where Spotlight really wins the day is having enough insight to tell the story as it really was. The facts are on display and the story has neither been embellished or polished to make it more marketable. It is the representation of real people doing their job and wanting to make a difference. It isn’t tempted to turn them into superheroes struggling against the odds but is rather content to show good journalists doing their research. And it’s still a thrilling and enthralling film.

It’s very unshowy and doesn’t really present itself as an Oscar contender. There are no major moments of acting included to make the voting panel sit up in their seats. It’s a very sedate affair and the cast are quietly brilliant in playing their parts. They deal with the topic with the same sombre attitude that director Tom McCarthy does. Everybody is aware that it is the story that matters here, the victims of the abuse, and not the journalists themselves. They are heroic in their own way but neither the film nor the cast try and glorify the people at the front of this film.

It’s a very honest narrative that doesn’t fail to throw shots back in the paper’s face. The Catholic scandal ran so deep because nobody wanted to see it. We discover that the paper itself made mistakes in the past and are forced to come to terms with face-to-face with their unwillingness to go against the status quo. It is a stark reminder of how recent this revelation really was and how easily people were willing to accept the Church’s response. The film doesn’t have the kind of superheroes fighting the big baddie you’ll see advertised throughout this year but it shows that, without people speaking out, corruption like this can go unnoticed for years.

The film constantly talks about the fear that the Catholic Church will come after Spotlight for their investigation. This isn’t in the All the President’s Men sense: this isn’t a threat of violence. It is a treat of being excluded. We are talking about a society where a nod, a nudge or a free drink are enough to get people to keep shtum. Spotlight isn’t a dramatic and over-the-top narrative about uncovering corruption. It is a tense, sophisticated and sensitive treatment of a real-life problem. A deserving winner of the Best Picture Oscar.