Doctor Strange — a review

Gonna take a lot of window cleaner to clean this thing.

Gonna take a lot of window cleaner to clean this thing.

My first introduction to Doctor Strange was a TV movie that was produced in 1978. I haven’t seen it since then (although that will change soon, because I’ve recently discovered that it’s available on video,), but I remember liking it very much at the time. My father, upon hearing that I had enjoyed this tele-film, proceeded to get me the Doctor Strange comics. To say that the comics were psychedelic head trips on paper is putting it mildly. Doctor Strange ventured into mystical realms that were best described as an LSD trip without the LSD. Once exposed to the comics, my love of the TV movie lessened, as I realized just how lame the movie was, compared to the unrestrained imagination on display within the vibrant panels of the comics.

This was why, when they announced that Marvel was producing a cinematic version of the Sorcerer Supreme, I was eager to see it. Not restrained by the meager budget of a TV film (nor the limited special effects of the 1970s), I figured that a new Doctor Strange film would finally be unfettered and just as crazy as it wants to be. And Doctor Strange, the latest superhero saga to emerge on the Marvel cinematic assembly line, does not disappoint. Benedict Cumberpatch, the modern day Sherlock, plays the lead role of Dr. Steven Strange, a brilliant (and arrogant) surgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident.

Let's see...where is it? Ah, here it is: Chapter 17, How To Bring About The End of the World.

Let’s see…where is it? Ah, here it is: Chapter 17, How To Bring About The End of the World.

Hearing of a man who used alternative methods of healing himself from paralysis, Strange follows his lead and seeks the advice of the Ancient One (the always great Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic who winds up teaching Strange far more than just regaining the use of his hands. There is a secret society of sorcerers who protect the Earth from full-on assaults from other-worldly realms, but this society of protectors is under attack by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his followers. Strange soon finds himself taking up arms–of the magical kind–to defeat this new threat to Earth.

Scott Derrickson, who directed the Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, helms DS, and he’s the perfect choice. Having plenty experience in imaginative scary movies, Derrickson adeptly handles the Strange proceedings with aplomb, and in retrospect it makes sense to hire a director with horror movies in his wheelhouse, because Doctor Strange is the closest thing to a horror film that the Marvel universe has. But in this case, Doctor Strange feels more like a dark fantasy tale that’s a blend of Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and the ending of 2001. As weird as that may sound, Derrickson makes it all work very nicely.

Hello, cape. You look like a very nice cape. Would you like to come home with me?

Hello, cape. You look like a very nice cape. Would you like to come home with me?

Cumberpatch proves to be perfect casting as Strange, truly becoming the character in a rousing scene where he literally rises up in the air, his cape flowing, to confront a baddie. Tilda Swinton gives her usual excellent performance, where she seemingly shape-shifts into another character made fully rounded just by her performance alone. Rachel McAdams is also extremely good, making the most of the thankless role of the girlfriend who gets left behind. Her wide-eyed reaction to Doctor Strange–who appears in her hospital, seeking medical attention–and the weirdness he brings with him is endearing to watch. Filled with imaginative eye candy that will make this a must-see on Blu-Ray, Doctor Strange is a fun ride through the mystic realms and beyond. –SF

Fantastic Beasts — a review

What's the frequency, Kenneth?

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them takes place in the same Harry Potter universe, but some seventy years before the boy-wizard would go off to school at Hogwarts (which means the Harry Potter stories took place in the ‘90s!). Premiering fifteen years after the first Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts stars Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a specialist in peculiar animals, and I’m not talking about various frog species. With this tale being set in the Harry Potter universe, these beasts are truly fantastic and creative examples of literally magical creatures. Newt keeps them in his suitcase, which, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, is much bigger on the inside.

My favorite of these beasts is a hysterically funny little guy who looks like a platypus with an ornery love of money and all things shiny. It’s called a Niffler, and Newt winds up chasing him all over New York City. The Niffler gleefully robs and steals everything that’s not nailed down, stuffing the items into unseen pockets within his fur (and these pockets are also bigger on the inside, judging from the multitude of riches he can get in there). It’s meant to be a throwaway joke, but the Niffler nearly stole the movie for me.

The real star of Fantastic Beasts.

The real star of Fantastic Beasts.

With a screenplay by the creator of Harry Potter and his universe, J.K. Rowling herself, the story is slightly more ominous than the gee-whiz fairy tale trappings of the first Harry Potter film. While the first Harry Potter movie was more of a children’s story (with the HP series becoming darker and more mature with each sequel), Fantastic Beasts–with its mainly adult cast–strives for a more complex tale dealing with magic and prejudice on the streets of New York City that’s equally gripping and entertaining at the same time. This darker edge serves the film very well. Directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films, as well this summer’s superb The Legend of Tarzan, Fantastic Beasts still manages to drag in some spots, but its sympathetic characters, brought to life by a great cast, keeps you hooked.

Redmayne is very good at playing a main character who feels more comfortable around animals than people, while Katherine Waterson is great as Tina, his spunky sidekick. But the real revelation here is Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol as Kowalski and Queenie, respectively–the both of them are marvelous standouts in a fine cast that also includes Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller (the cinematic Flash from the DC superhero films), Samantha Morton, and Ron Perlman.

Whoops! This isn't Westeros, is it? Excuse me.

Whoops! This isn’t Westeros, is it? Excuse me.

This is supposed to be the first in a five part movie series, and it winds up being a great setup film, because thanks to the well fleshed out characters–as well as the signs and portents of nefarious things to come–I wanted things to just keep going when it ended. If you’re looking for a fun, magical film for the entire family then grab yourself some giggle water and go find these fantastic beasts. –SF

Ghostbusters (2016) — a review

Let those misogynistic bastards have it!

Let those misogynistic bastards have it!

I have to admit to never being a huge fan of the original Ghostbusters film. I didn’t hate it; when I saw it for the first time in theaters I actually had a nice time with it. The movie was a fun ride. But then I forgot about it. Unlike movies that I truly loved, like Blade Runner, or the Star Wars movies, I never had any real urge to own a copy of GB, and other than seeing it a second time with friends during a double feature with Fright Night a year later in 1985, I never saw Ghostbusters again until very recently on home video (it was only the third time I saw it in over thirty years, and the first time I watched it with closed captions; it was nice to finally pick up some missed lines).

So when they announced a new version of GB, with an all-female cast, I wasn’t one of those cry-babies who whined, because the original Ghostbusters was just another movie for me, nothing more (and even when they did remake stuff I loved, like Star Trek, I still didn’t whine anyway–because, at the end of the day, it’s still just a TV show, you know?). Seeing the new Ghostbusters, starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, I had a really fun time. The movie was enjoyable, but in a superficial way.

The original GB got by on the charms of its superb cast, but it also had a solid script that grounded the story in everyday gritty reality. The humor in the first film came out of the situations, which were played deadpan straight. The remake eschews the realistic tone of the original and is just a flat out comedy, not bothering with characterization, such as with the villain, who is given the short end of the stick since he’s nothing but a cardboard cutout bad guy who is very one-note. The problem this creates is there no real menace, no real threat, for the Ghostbusters to fight. And without any threat, there’s no suspense, and the big ghost parade at the end, while pretty to look at, doesn’t really engage the viewer as it should.

Another problem is that despite being played by three great actresses, the Ghostbusters played by McCarthy, Wiig and Jones barely register, lacking any screen presence whatsoever–save for one, and this was strictly because of her performance. Kate McKinnon made her name on Saturday Night Live, where she shines very brightly as a character actress who is so good she disappears into whatever role she’s playing (her impression of Ellen DeGeneres is really very good). Here, she plays the wonderfully whacked-out Jillian Holtzmann, the “Scotty” of the GB crew, who keeps inventing and refining the wild tech that’s needed to fight the ghosts.

Jillian Holtzmann, scientific genius and all around goddess.

Jillian Holtzmann, scientific genius and all around goddess.

McKinnon has created a marvelously unique character in Holtzmann, who is so endearingly weird and offbeat that you can’t take your eyes off of her. McKinnon steals the movie from her co-stars, and rightly so. She’s the sole reason I’d like to get this film on video, because I figure everybody needs a little Jillian Holtzmann in their lives. As far as the overall film, I enjoyed it for its eye candy qualities (along with the presence of the mighty Miss H, long may she reign). I’m glad to hear there’s a sequel coming, and hope they do a better job with the screenplay next time. Perhaps armed with a better script, these female Ghostbusters will truly kick ghostly butt as they were meant to. –SF

Alice Through The Looking Glass — a review

Should I go through? Or should I just stare at myself? It might be better to just stare at myself.

Should I go through? Or should I just stare at myself? It might be better to just stare at myself.

Having been a big fan of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, which I didn’t see until it came out on video, I wanted to rectify that mistake with the sequel. You see, the original Alice is such a gorgeous looking film; it’s got boundless scenes of true eye candy that I had always wished I had seen this in its original 3D format, which it was released in. And so when Alice Through The Looking Glass, the sequel, was released, I promptly saw it in the theater, hoping to enjoy a visual feast at least on the big screen. But there was a little problem.

Alice Through The Looking Glass really blows, hard.

Although he co-produced it, Tim Burton didn’t direct this one. The director here was James Bobin. The one thing that you could always count on with a Tim Burton-directed film is that it will always be visually interesting, even if the story isn’t very strong, which was why I thought the first film was so entertaining to watch: the visuals created by Burton were scrumptious, especially when watching them on Blu-Ray. But lacking the visual flair of the original, the sequel looks and feels more mundane–which, for a fantasy movie about Wonderland, is not a good thing.

Oops, looks like I should have stayed out of the mirror after all.

Oops, looks like I should have stayed out of the mirror after all.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska), now working these days on the rollicking high seas as a ship’s captain, gets called back to Wonderland to help the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) who has been stricken by a disease that can only be cured by having Alice go back in time. In order to do that, she must “borrow” a time machine from Time (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) himself. Portrayed as a half human, half mechanism, Time chases after Alice while she chases after a way of curing the Mad Hatter in the past before he becomes sick.

The whole movie feels like a tired retread, with endless exposition scenes that have the characters merely stand around and talk at each other for far too long. Even the return of Helena Bonham Carter as the former Red Queen (who was so much fun in the first film) feels flat and lifeless, as if the filmmakers were trying to restore a little bit of the former glory. But the boring and tedious Alice Through The Looking Glass, coming six years too late after its far better predecessor, winds up being an overly long waste of time. –SF

Warcraft — a review

When's this frigging meeting supposed to start, already? Can we at least get snacks while we wait?

When’s this frigging meeting supposed to start, already? Can we at least get snacks while we wait?

I’m not much of a gamer, so I’ve never played Warcraft. But I’ve certainly heard of it: the online game that’s created an entire fantasy world for its players to roam around in. I wasn’t surprised when they decided to make a movie out of the game, seeing how it’s so popular. Directed by Duncan Jones (the son of the late David Bowie who also directed the superb Source Code and Moon), Warcraft, the movie deals with an invasion of a race called Orcs, whose warriors step through a portal that transports them to another world. The reason the Orcs are launching this invasion is because their home world is dying. They’re led by a powerful Orc mystic who uses the souls of the living as fuel for his magic.

The world that’s being invaded is ruled jointly by several kingdoms made up of humans, Dwarves, and other fantasy world entities. These kingdoms are commanded by a human king played by Dominic Cooper, and he’s at a loss as to how to deal with these aggressive invaders. The Orcs are depicted here as being twice the size of a regular human with the strength to match, and, having established a beachhead, they’re building a portal to bring forth a much larger army. The king decides to call upon a powerful wizard played by Ben Foster for help, but magic may not even be enough to stop this invasion.

Does this new world we're invading have any Starbucks?

Does this new world we’re invading have any Starbucks?

Most movies based on video games have been abysmally bad, but Warcraft is the exception, thanks to Jones’ assured direction. Despite the fact that there’s a lot of CGI on display, Jones went through the trouble of building actual sets and props wherever he could, and the result shows on screen. The film has a gritty, tangible feel to it that gives the fantastical proceedings a more realistic air. Jones also covers the war from both sides, giving equal time to the Orcs by showing they are not all mindless monsters; he tries to flesh out his characters as much as possible, and this effort on his part is appreciated.

However, the pacing of Warcraft has a very rushed feel, and because of this it lacks the gravitas that director Peter Jackson imbued within his Lord Of The Rings trilogy (ironically, The Hobbit trilogy, also directed by Jackson, lacked any gravitas as well, with the final film in that trilogy also feeling rushed). One wonders if a longer, director’s cut is coming down the pike–and I wouldn’t mind if it did, because despite my quibbles, I still enjoyed Warcraft very much. It may not be in the same league as the cinematic Lord Of The Rings, but the enjoyable Warcraft still stands head and shoulders above many lesser fantasy films that have been recently released. –SF

The third Hobbit Film — a review

What do you  mean, the grand ball room is booked? Our party had it reserved since last year!

What do you mean, the grand ball room is booked? Our party had it reserved since last year!

One of the most impressive thing about the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, was Smaug himself. Director Peter Jackson did a great job at creating the central villain of the Hobbit, a murderous, psychotic dragon who was given voice by Cumberland Patchworks (you know, the guy who plays Sherlock Holmes in the really cool BBC series; Martin Freeman, who plays Watson in that series, stars in the Hobbit films as Bilbo). The second film ended on a cliffhanger, with Bilbo and the dwarves, after failing miserably in killing the dragon, watch with horror as Smaug flies off, hell-bent on smoking the floating hamlet of Lake-Town in devious revenge.

But when I saw the third and final Hobbit film, it would up being a massive disappointment for me. Smaug gets killed within the first ten minutes, and then we’re treated to another ’great war’ between the races of Middle-Earth, who are all fighting over the prized treasures within the Dwarf mountain. The problem is that the battle itself is not very spectacular, especially given that two of Jackson’s recent films, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, both handle climatic wars in a much better and more satisfying way.

Yo, anybody here own a '02 Toyota? Your headlights are still on!

Yo, anybody here own a ’02 Toyota? Your headlights are still on!

Another problem for me with the third Hobbit film is that Smaug was such a potent villain who felt like he was so easily snuffed at the whim of bored screenwriters–much like how Boba Fett was largely wasted in the Star Wars films. One could argue that Jackson and his writers were working from a novel, and had to follow it faithfully. But they didn’t follow the Hobbit book that faithfully, or else they never would have invented Tauriel, a warrior elf played by Evangeline Lilly who’s a welcome sight in these movies since she’s the only female of note in the entire cinematic Hobbit trilogy (the dearth of female characters in SF and fantasy films as always been a pet peeve of mine, anyway).

So if the Hobbit filmmakers could make a big change like Tauriel, why not also shift the story line away from another pointless battle and towards something that we have not seen in The Lord of the Rings, a powerful dragon? For Tolkien readers, I may be suggesting blasphemy, but this isn’t rewriting one of his books, it’s changing a film adaptation of one of his books. It’s hinted at in one of the Hobbit films that Smaug is an ally of the resurgent Sauron. Why not play that up some more? Perhaps they could still have the Battle of the Five Armies, but with Smaug directly involved as the overall leader of the bad guys?

Face it, tiger, I'm the best thing in these Hobbit movies.

Face it, tiger, I’m the best thing in these Hobbit movies.

Having Smaug involved to the very end of The Five Armies would make the final conflict of the Hobbit far more challenging for the heroes with a dragon involved. But instead, as it is, the Battle of the Five Armies feels very stale and by the numbers. I’m not surprised to see the behind the scenes feature on the blu-ray, showing an exhausted Jackson struggling to find the muse to finish the Hobbit while filming was ongoing. The Battle of the Five Armies is not a terrible film (the R-rated Blu-Ray edition, with added and extended scenes, is recommended over the theatrical version), I just wasn’t satisfied with it. Watching it made me wonder what it could have been like had the filmmakers dared to think outside the box, instead of slavishly following the book. –SF