Review: Doctor Strange

10643689501470780548050 It’s hard, currently, to walk into a Marvel Studios movie and not have that up-surging hint of pure excitement, that childlike feeling of anticipation as you know you are about to see an intellectual property (maybe even one that you relate to, inherently or otherwise) treated with the utmost grace and ability that large-scale filmmaking has to offer. This is no different in director Scott Derrickson’s interpretation of Doctor Strange, where an amazing cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role brings one of Marvel’s lesser known but greatly powered heroes to live action in a stunning and wondrous way. In fact, it is the sense of awe and grandeur that Doctor Strange inflicts that makes it so impactful, by ways of the introduction of magic and the deep mystery of the beyond, the film props itself up immediately as one of the best Marvel productions to date.

This film suffers some of the same indignities that the Marvel formula provides, namely a rushed prologue and shortened character development. However, these are largely sidestepped by the structure Derrickson lays throughout the movie: by taking advantage of the very tropes a character such as “Doctor Strange” is inundated with, the movie leads the audience to clever assumptions about characters, supplanting concrete descriptions with vague but informative notions. He lets the audience do the work he could have done with more run time.

The supporting cast is nothing short of fantastic, usually the case with films from Marvel Studios but especially so here. Chiwetel Ejiofor puts in a contrasting performance to Cumberbatch’s aloof Strange, a stoic and severe reminder of the variety of personalities at play in the movie as “Mordo”. Benedict Wong, easily enough as the character “Wong”, offers up a sort of characterization of Mordo’s severity, one that serves as both beloved guide and unintended comic relief throughout the movie. The only real disappointment is Rachel McAdams in the extremely forgettable position of lead love interest in a Marvel Studios movie as “Christine Palmer” a character that connects Strange’s old life to his new one and fulfills little purpose other than that.

The real high casting points in this film are the triumvirate of players at the top: Cumberbatch as “Doctor Strange”, Tilda Swinton as “The Ancient One” and Mads Mikkelsen as “Kaecilius”. Cumberbatch exceeds in his portrayal of Strange, he has always done well with the “brash American” characters and that skill is honed to a fine point here: at times sarcastic and playful, severe and enraged, the range he displays is wonderful. Swinton excels as she always does, donning an intriguingly androgynous form for “The Ancient One” and thoroughly accomplishing the effect that she knows much, much more than Strange or even the audience does. Mikkelsen takes a stereotypically underdeveloped Marvel villain and makes up for what the script lacks in with the pure intensity of his performance.

However, if there is one reason to see this movie, it is for its visual splendor. From beginning to end the movie is packed with stunning cinematography. Cinematographer Ben Davis adds to the feel he honed in Guardians of the Galaxy with a foreboding sense of forever. Anywhere from the “mirror dimension” to “The Dark Dimension”, the level and layout of the CGI work create mind-blowingly powerful landscapes and scenes. The very addition of something as illogical as magic to the Marvel universe opens up a plethora of visual options as the film takes on an almost kaleidoscopic nature, transcending normal visual cues for something altogether new for audiences.

Ultimately, Doctor Strange is a treat for the viewer in many ways: superb acting, the impact of an interesting yet underutilized character, a classic formula whose faults are for a bit lifted, but probably most of all Doctor Strange will owe its success to the rich visual thematics it has been imbued with by director Scott Derrickson. Between his delicate handling of a premise that could easily have jumped the shark and the impeccable acting chops of Benedict Cumberbatch, perhaps the most polished Marvel Studios movie yet was made, and it is a joy to behold.

[easyreview title= "Review of Dr. Strange" cat1title="Bart's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

Review: Triple 9

Triple9Banner The ensemble heist thriller is a funny beast of a movie to make. Ensemble films in general are challenging for a director, one must balance a variety of personalities, all skilled, through a movie that usually does not have enough runtime to feature each actor significantly. Combine that with the twists and turns, constant suspense, riveting dialogue that must accompany the classic heist thriller and you have quite the order on your hands. John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 struggles with this complex series of challenges his own film sets up for him, resulting in a film experience that ultimately may not be great, but is certainly a serviceable representation of a genre that is horribly underrepresented.

The history of the genre itself is fascinating: perhaps the penultimate example of an ensemble heist film is Michael Mann’s 1995 nearly three hour crime epic Heat. This took two of the biggest actors at the time (DeNiro and Pacino) and set them head to head in a violent, intrigue-filled marathon while surrounding them with an extremely competent supporting cast. Towards the end of the nineties, the heist film continued to be shockingly violent but tinged with humor through Guy Ritchie films such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. The new millennium brought a concentration on humor to the genre with the Ocean’s series of movies, and this was turned into a full on reversal of genre tone by the time the last popular heist movie (Tower Heist) was released; a once violent and gritty film category has been hijacked by comedian ensembles and wacky hijinks.

That is where the true promise of Triple 9 comes in: its ability to portray a serious, violent crime thriller in a manner more akin to the late eighties/early nineties vision of the genre. Unrelentingly stylistic with a dark tonality punctuated by moments of extreme and sudden violence define the most compelling parts of the movie. The spray of gunfire isn’t at a Bay-esque constant drone, but rather a staccato of ferocity that masterfully brings the movie out of its periods of long darkness and introspection into the action it so easily provides. The violence serves a purpose too, thematically it accentuates the chaotic environment these characters are thrust into, and neither the character nor the viewer knows when or where the next shots are coming.

And let’s talk about the characters, at once one of the most notable triumphs of this film while also one of its confusing failures. The casting is absurdly well done, and maybe more than not, representative of a new wave of popular actors in Hollywood. The cast is packed full of names, but there were only a few roles that truly excelled. Not at the fault of the excellent cast mind you, but rather indicative of the effect a short run time had on character development. Two standouts were Aaron Paul as “Gabe” and Kate Winslet as “Irina”, both of these actors took relatively minor roles where either had an excuse to play the role as merely a vehicle for plot progression. However, Paul adds a notion of sadness and regret to his character that isn’t really seen elsewhere throughout the movie. Gabe is the only character with a real sense of development throughout the film, and Paul’s approach to that really made his role an admirable performance. Kate Winslet is shocking purely in the fact that this isn’t a character one would usually associate with her. Irina is a cold, calculating bad guy with interesting motivations, a sort of Bond villain that wandered into a heist film. Rather than jarring, this performance actually complements the chaotic nature of the other characters quite well.

Unfortunately, the casting is also what drags the movie down, as so many characters played by so many powerful actors in a film with limited run time creates a clog of personalities that serves only to confuse character development. Despite being an ensemble film, the two leads could be seen as Casey Affleck and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Both of their characters had real relationships that were portrayed in a satisfying enough manner, except, both characters are plagued by near zero character development. Their motivations, approaches, reactions are constant throughout the film. These characters are who they are, unforgivingly, and don’t aspire to change despite a yearning desire on the part of the audience to see something learned, or a thematic gleaned, something that would provide substance to the purely stylistic approach this movie seems to offer.

This lack of character progression combined with an excess of stylistic imagery is what ultimately leads to the other characters fading into the background. Heat had a runtime of 170 minutes, maybe excessive, but this allowed all of the characters involved to bloom into something special. At a comparatively paltry 115 minutes, Triple 9 simply doesn’t have enough breadth to offer all of its key players enough time to carve out a niche for themselves. Everyone involved in this production is clearly skilled at what they do, it just seems the structure they were given to do it in might not have been appropriate for what a good ensemble heist film needs.

However, the really exciting idea that this movie provides is “what could be”. As stated before, the heist film has gone from its brutal rebirth in the nineties to a family-friendly matinee comedy, and perhaps this is the film to bring it back to the effervescent brutality that made it such a heralded format. While the construction of this movie isn’t perfect, it provides what is needed for a successful ensemble heist movie, from the great casting to the stylistic dialogue sequences to the stop-start intense moments of action, this movie is enjoyable. Enjoyable, and perhaps most importantly, a move towards the kind of adult-oriented entertainment the movie industry desperately needs.

[easyreview title= "Review of Triple 9" cat1title="Bart's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="3.5" overall= false]

Review: 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave

An actual account of the American slave trade is practically impossible to find. However, Solomon Northup, an educated free man who was sold into slavery did just that. Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) goes all out to present one of the best on screen representations of the American slave era and its gut wrenching effects on those who were victims of it. This film stars an all-star cast lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong'o.

Beginning with the relative normal life of a free black family in Saratoga, New York the Northups were seemingly treated like everyone else around them. The father, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is beloved by others and they view him with a level of respect and admiration. All of this happening while the southern portion of the nation is ripe with the use of slaves from Africa. There is something particularly jarring about seeing Solomon and his family so happy and normal at these times. It feels out of place from the known history most are taught. However, life in certain areas was as it was portrayed in Saratoga in 1841.

Solomon made his living by playing the violin, and was offered money to play at a circus by two men, Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam. These men drugged Solomon and sold him into slavery. After drinking and eating with these men all night he awakens to shackles and endures beatings the very next day. The brutality and horror by which we see Solomon’s freedom be taken away is not only heartbreaking but incredibly frustrating. The notion that a human being could do this to another is unfathomable in today’s society, but it was so common place at the time. Solomon is shipped off to Georgia where he is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). However, before he arrives at Ford's plantation we get moments of the slave trade itself. The selling of slaves like animals or equipment was harsh. Watching mothers being separated from the children was a hard hitting narrative that McQueen touches on quite often. This scene prepared the audience for the emotional brutality that was to follow.

Solomon was not kept at Ford’s plantation too long before being sold into the hands of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps was a brutal tyrant in a time of many tyrants. He stands out in the crowd of despicable people in the film. He is described as a “breaker of niggers” before we even meet him. A man of religiosity and yet the purveyor of such pain and suffering, Epps plays well to the purposeful compartmentalization of Christian values and known slaver. Like many slave owners Epps had an affinity for a particular female slave. That woman was is Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), and she is one of the most profound characters I have seen in film. Dancing the line between pure innocence and unimaginable internal despair, Patsey is everything that Epps loves and hates. He feels that he must possess her in every possible way; simple ownership is not enough. Her beautiful onyx skin plays as a further contrast to who Epps is and what he wants. Solomon befriends this woman and their interactions are fascinating. She is looking for the fastest ways out of her situation, while Solomon works to tell her that she must endure; both pay dearly for their opposing views. There are no easy answers or even definitive ones, but all the characters are set on their path. When Solomon is given his opportunity to make it out, he takes it and others do the same. The idea of survival is challenged quite often with Solomon even stating explicitly, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”

The acting performances in 12 Years A Slave, were the best I’ve seen this year. The cast featured an array of big names, rising stars, and relative unknowns all playing their parts in great harmony. Lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s Solomon Northup had purpose and a genuineness that isn’t often seen. The degradation of going from a free man to a slave was no simple task in showing, but Ejiofor did it was such vigor that at moments you lose him in the role. Michael Fassbender is one of the best working actors of today. He will certainly go down as one of the best that’s ever done it, and I honestly love the guy’s work. However, I hated his guts in this film; a true testament to his skill as an actor. He is deplorable, hypocritical, and down right vicious. With two leading actors putting some of the best performances of their careers I think they were ultimately overshadowed. Lupita Nyong'o delivered nothing shy of an Oscar award winning performance. She never let up for a second. Whenever she was on screen she stole the spotlight, even from Ejiofor and Fassbender. She is the gem of the film. From being exalted by Epps to the final outcome of their relationship she runs the gamut. Nyong’o was able to portray a woman who is the absolute product of her horrible circumstances. She plays the loved slave/doll and works to become more. She accepts her plight but not before making some understandable choices. I look forward to seeing Nyong’o in more stellar roles like Patsey.

In conclusion, director Steve McQueen was able to craft a film that respected and brought to life the true story of Solomon Northup. There will never be another detailed slave story quite like Solomon’s and there will never be a film with the level of impact, brutality, insanity, and reality quite like 12 Years A Slave.

[easyreview title= "Review of 12 Years A Slave" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]