Film Review: “Doctor Strange”

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton
Directed By: Scott Derrickson
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 115 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

How many trick or treaters did you get that were dressed as Doctor Strange? I’m going to guess that you got none. You probably saw more kiddos dressed like Thor, Spiderman, Batman, Harley Quinn or Iron Man. Well next year you might see a few more kids wearing fake or drawn on goatees and donning red velvet colored capes.

The latest addition to the Marvel cinematic universe is the egocentric neurosurgeon, Stephen Strange. The world renowned doctor showboats while patients’ lives are on the line. He loves demonstrating his calm demeanor and unflinching hands under immense pressure during operations that require precise movements. He values his hands much like a model covets their hourglass shape. But that all goes out the window after he suffers a horrific accident (don’t text and drive), that requires pins, needles and plates to reconstruct his hands. All that’s left after multiple surgeries are trembling scarred fingers resembling flesh pudding.

Refusing to accept that he’s lost the use of his hands, Strange goes on an experimental medical journey that ends in impoverished Tibet. Whispers and rumors have led him to the mystic Ancient One (Swinton). Despite reservations about Strange’s narcissism, she takes him in. She hopes to upend his self-centered Western mind and open it to the powers of Eastern religion and ancient mysticism; all while spouting lines of dialogue reminiscent of Taoism or Gautama Buddha.

Outside of being the most mentally and spiritually stimulating entry into the Marvel movie catalog, “Doctor Strange” features a superhero that prefers brains over brawn. But when fighting is required, it’s a visually stunning treat. The visuals are a mix of “Inception,” M.C. Esher, “Avatar: the Last Airbender,” “The Matrix,” and a Pink Floyd acid trip. When the world begins to bend and fold, the grand music score, with morsels of Eastern stringed musical instruments and psychedelic synthesizers, props up the optical mind trickery.

As for the story, it lacks the right amount of emotional magic and it seems to suffer what most Marvel movies lack, an interesting and relevant villain (just sit through the credits for more proof that Marvel is out of villains). Mads Mikklesen, who’s been an iconic villain in everything from
“Casino Royale” to his eerily role as a middle-aged Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s TV show, seems wasted in this movie as Kaecillius. Kaecillius’ motivation is a blend of rebellion against the Ancient One and his immoral infatuation with immortality.

Despite my frustrations with a lack of Mikklesen, Cumberbatch and Swinton are a delight to watch with their “Karate Kid” teacher/student moments. The duo has the most to offer their characters while everyone else is left to play second fiddle to them. Rachel McAdams plays Strange’s toss-away love interest and Chiwetel Ejiofor spends most of his time standing in proximity to main characters so he can provide key plot points.

Despite some of its storytelling flaws, Doctor Strange is the most thought provoking of Marvel’s movies, while keeping intact the thing we’ve come to know and love from Marvel studios. “Doctor Strange” was definitely a risky gamble for Marvel, but it’s paid off. And not just because of Cumberbatch’s acting and a crew dedicated to dissecting and dismantling everything we thought about the world, but because it puts aside the city destruction and violence for some thoughtful superhero development.

New York Film Festival Review “12 Years a Slave”

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano
Directed By: Steve McQueen
Fox Searchlight
Rated: R
Running Time: 133 minutes

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

As evidenced by his first two features, Hunger and Shame, director Steve McQueen is fearless in his approach to difficult subject matters. The same is true here in his unflinching and unforgettable third feature, 12 Years a Slave.

The film is based on the true life account of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in New York who was deceived and sold into a life of slavery from 1841 to 1853. The film opens with Northup already in this role working on a sugar cane plantation and then brings us back to his family life in New York leading up to his deception. The men who will eventually drug and betray him come in the form of Brown and Hamilton, played by Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam, who offer Solomon the promise of violin work in Washington DC. The whole sequence is reminiscent of a sort of hellish version of Pinocchio being lead off by the circus folk and it plays out with a dreadful inevitability that left my stomach churning. When Solomon is awoken in chains, Ejiofor’s bewilderment is heart-wrenching as he struggles between fighting for his identity and recognizing how powerless he’s just been rendered.

Ejiofor is at the center of an embarrassment of acting talent throughout this film with even smaller roles occupied by the likes of Brad Pitt, Michael K Williams, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and last year’s Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Benedict Cumberbatch has a key role as Ford, Northrup’s first owner. Ford is initially presented as a sympathetic man, even seen as such by Solomon himself, but the way McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley disillusion us of the very notion of this idea is masterful. For all Ford’s sympathetic looks and guilt about the institution he is undoubtably a part of, he will still allow a family to be split at auction and won’t hear a word of Solomon’s story despite recognizing his intelligence. Actions speak louder than words and under Ford, Solomon still suffers through some of the harshest tortures in the film. Including selling Solomon off again to the monstrous Edwin Epps in the film’s final act.

Coming from both Hunger and Shame, Michael Fassbender successfully reteams with director McQueen again as Epps. Fassbender is fascinating to watch as his character rages against his slaves with frightening conviction he backs up with biblical scripture. He is further driven to violence by his complete inability to deal with his unhinged infatuation with his most productive slave girl, Patsey (incredible newcomer Lupita Nyong’o).

Truly however the film belongs to Chiwetel Ejifor who imbues Northup with an unwavering determination to not only survive his ordeal, but as he says, to live. To not give into despair. Moreover when it comes to his re-emancipation, we feel the weight of the time lost as much as the relief of freedom.

12 Years A Slave opens is now playing , I screened it as part of the 51st New York Film Festival, you can read our red carpet coverage from the event with an interview from the film’s star Michael Fassbender.