Doctor Strange – A Review

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I consider myself a Marvel girl, but I am a Marvel movie girl. I’ve never actually read any of the comic books that these movies are based on, so I have varying degrees of familiarity with the characters that they depict before watching. The most famous of the bunch – your Hulks and your Spider-Mans – I was pretty well versed in prior to their film adaptations. Others I had a basic working knowledge of, but didn’t know most of the details. Even the most obscure characters to be depicted on the big screen I at least picked up some information about – I knew what Ant-Man’s power was and though I didn’t know the specifics I was aware that Guardians of the Galaxy took place in space and that a talking raccoon somehow figured into things. Not a lot to go on, but it was something.

Then along came Doctor Strange – a character that I knew absolutely zero about.

I don’t think that I even was aware of Doctor Strange’s existence until the movie was announced. Honestly, I kept getting him confused with the Spider-Man villain Doctor Octopus. Watching the trailers didn’t clear up much for me either; all I surmised from them was that Doctor Strange looked like a magician and that there was a decent chance that his movie was some sort of Inception derivative, based on the buildings folding onto themselves and whatnot. When I walked into the theater, the fact that this character was such an unknown quantity was both exciting and unnerving.

Doctor Strange is an interesting new chapter for the Marvel Universe; to date, all the Marvel movies have been somewhat grounded in reality. Admittedly, it is hard to argue that a world where a man turns into a big green monster when he’s angry is “reality,” but there is a method to my madness. While superhorse may not be realistic per se, so far all the characters in Marvel films have received their powers through logical means – scientific experiments, mutations, etc. Thor is an obvious exception, but he is also not of Earth or even our universe. Doctor Strange is the first step for Marvel into sorcery and mysticism. Instead of Doctor Strange obtaining his powers from the more traditional methods previously introduced, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) can thank magic and the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) for his transition from arrogant surgeon to less-arrogant superhero.

Perhaps the best part of Doctor Strange are the visuals; this is a breathtaking movie from the jump. The open seven minutes of the film may be the most visually stunning and impressive sequence of any Marvel movie to date. It’s simply breathtaking and is likely a frontrunner for Oscar consideration. I had worried that some of the visuals would be too familiar after watching Inception, but that was not the case. The action sequences are thrilling and disorienting (in a good way). I didn’t spring for IMAX or 3-D for my viewing and this is one of the few instances where I kind of regret my frugality as I imagine that these scenes are even more spectacular in either format. From what I’ve read, the film adaptation is loyal to the more psychedelic vibe of the comics; there were a few moments during the movie where I wondered if perhaps someone had slipped me LSD since it was so cosmic and trippy. Doctor Strange is dazzling and weird, which is a hard combination to find.

I really enjoyed Cumberbatch in the title role and he really fits the personality of the character well; not that I’ve seen him in the role, I really can’t imagine anyone else ever playing Doctor Strange. But as great as I thought Cumberbatch was, Swinton really steals this movie. Though there was some controversy about casting her as The Ancient One, she is fantastic. She is fierce and funny and you instantly believe that she possesses something not of this world. Every scene that she is in, she owns, which is saying a lot since she shares screen time with other excellent actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen. If I had one major complaint about Doctor Strange is that it doesn’t give Rachel McAdams much to work with as Strange’s colleague and love interest. This is a problem with most superhero movies, but McAdams does her best to rise above the material that she’s given.

What I also liked about Doctor Strange is that it is basically a stand-alone Marvel movie. While I am a big fan of the Avengers and the interconnectivity of all the movies, it does get a little tiresome when they are trying to shoehorn in other Marvel characters to fit the individual movies into the greater universe. Doctor Strange only makes passing mention to the existence of the Avengers and I think that the movie is the better for it. There are no gratuitous cameos or forced references; Doctor Strange focuses on telling the origin story of one character and one character alone. There will be team-ups with the Avengers down the line – one of the post-credit sequences makes that clear- but it is a nice change of pace for them to be confident enough in this character’s arc to not bring in any other distractions.

Some other thoughts:

  • I didn’t realize that there was a Doctor Stange/Pink Floyd connection prior to seeing the movie, but they do make a subtle reference to that in the film.
  • I’d be willing to defend Earth from the dark dimension too if I got to live in a sweet townhouse on Bleecker Street in NYC. That’s some prime real estate.
  • This movie is surprisingly funny. I didn’t expect that going in, but there are plenty of laughs. Perhaps the biggest reaction from the audience at my viewing was the payoff of a long-running joke featuring Wong (Benedict Wong). He’s great in this film too.
  • There are two post credit scenes, so make sure that you stay through to the very end.  This explains their significance.

Considering that I had no idea what to expect from Doctor Strange, I have to say that I really enjoyed it. I can’t say that I necessarily understood all of it, but that can be said for pretty much every Marvel movie (I still don’t really grasp what the Tesseract is, other than everyone wants it). This move into the more magical and mystical parts of the Marvel intrigues me, as I’m not really sure what other characters and stories are lurking in this particular part of the Universe. Doctor Strange is a giant visual departure from its predecessors, but at its heart it is still a traditional Marvel origin story. Doctor Strange really isn’t all that different from Iron Man – their powers may be different, but their personalities and their fall from grace are both pretty similar. Doctor Strange is indeed a long strange trip, but it’s one worth going on.

Doctor Strange opened nationwide on Friday November 4th.

 

The Imitation Game – A Review

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Much like the German code that he sought to break, Alan Turing is something of an enigma. Most of Turing’s life was shrouded in secrecy – both professionally and personally. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about the British mathematician before I saw The Imitation Game; I’d heard the name Turing, but wasn’t really aware of his significance or his role in World War II. I think that ultimately played in my favor, as I found the story of him and his fellow code breakers an absolutely fascinating tale. Anchored by a fantastic performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game is a glimpse at an important moment in history, as well as a reminder of the prejudice and persecution that many had to (and continue to) endure.

The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), who is part of a team (including Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Allen Leech) that is enlisted for a top secret mission: to break the Nazi Enigma code to be able to intercept and understand what the Germans are planning to do next. The code is reset every 24 hours, which means that cracking the code is also a race against time; all the work done the previous day is worthless. Turing’s personality and methods inititally clash with not only the other code breakers, but his supervisors as well; rather than trying to decipher the code in a traditional way, Turing wants to design a machine that will break the code for them. A special relationship develops between Turing and Joan Clarke (Knightley) – she humanizes him a bit and he is willing to give her opportunities that she normally wouldn’t be granted as a woman during this time. Turing may be somewhat eccentric and removed, but he has reason for that – he’s concealing part of who he really is. That secret will eventually cost him almost everything that he’s worked for.

What makes The Imitation Game a special movie is that it’s a film that has both an interesting story and that is well acted. You’d think that was to be expected, but lately I seem to see films that are one or the other, but not both. Cumberbatch is unsurprisingly great in this film; he manages to play Turing and his eccentricities with balance. There is more to this man than just a series of quirks and Cumberbatch takes pains to make sure that this is a grounded performance. There is an inherent restraint to Turing, given that he is concealing a lot, and Cumberbatch is perfectly contained in bringing Turing to life. It’ a role that could have been done in a manner so that it was very similar to Cumberbatch’s famous turn as Sherlock Holmes, but by making the necessary adjustments it is a performance that feels new and true to the man it was depicting, rather than a rehash of what we already know Cumberbatch can do well. Cumberbatch is surrounded by other solid performances as well; I’ve always been a little ambiguous about how I feel about Keira Knightly, but this latest performance is the culmination of a string of roles that have really impressed me recently. She’s very good as Joan and she and Cumberbatch work extremely well together. There really isn’t a poor performance in this movie; no matter how big a role the actors have, everyone does a nice job with what they are given.

Though the backdrop of the film is WWII, this isn’t a traditional war movie; the weakest part of the film is probably the stock footage that they use for any of the depictions of the actual fighting. That wasn’t a problem for me, since I typically find war-centric movies to be tedious, but if someone is expecting a lot of the traditional wartime action from The Imitation Game they will be disappointed. But what I think makes this movie exceptional is that it is able to create just as much tension from the story that it is trying to tell; even if you don’t know the specifics of Turing’s story, you know the ultimate outcome of WWII so there isn’t necessarily a lot of obvious suspense. Despite that, the film is able to create a story that you are invested in, regardless of how much you know about the actual historical events. There are clear stakes to what these characters are doing, even if much of it happens off screen. I’ve suffered some WWII fatigue in movies, as many of them cover the same general terrain; while the Holocaust is obviously a critical event in our recent history, it was kind of refreshing to see a WWII film that didn’t have anything to do with that particular part of the War.

My only gripe about The Imitation Game is that while I was very interested in the story that it was telling and quite liked the performances, something about the film made it feel a little too predictable and contrived. I have this problem with many biopics, which is essentially what this film is; as loyal readers know, I tend to like my films a little messier and there isn’t much mess to The Imitation Game. It’s an important story to be told, but it is told in the simplest manner. There aren’t any shades of grey in the film. That their stylist choice and they have the right to make it, but that doesn’t resonate as strongly with me. Turing was a great man who made great accomplishments, but by choosing to primarily focus on him (and to a lesser degree his relationship with Joan) the film minimizes the importance of some of the other characters. This focus of the film is also a little blurry – is this film the story of breaking the Enigma code or the personal story of Alan Turing? I think it’s setting out to do the latter, but the attention to the former means that neither component is told in a very in-depth manner.

Some other thoughts:

  • Charles Dance also appears in this film and I don’t think I’ll ever not be able to think of him as Tywin Lannister (Game of Thrones). I kept waiting for him to do something awful to Benedict Cumberbatch.
  • I saw this film at the Film Columbia festival and the organizer of the festival introduces the films to the audience prior to each screening. He wound up telling the audience the ending of the film, which caused a big ballyhoo; though what happened to Turing is part of historical record and was apparently mentioned in the blurb for the film, a lot of people in the audience were very angry when this happened. I had avoided reading too much about any of the films on purpose so that I could be surprised, but even knowing how things worked out didn’t really damper my enthusiasm for the film. But it wasn’t a great way to kick off the festival.
  • A crossword puzzle plays an important part in the recruitment of code breakers; see how you do on it:

 

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All in all, I was fairly impressed with The Imitation Game; it may have been a little too simplified for my liking, but it was an interesting story with some interesting performances. I’m sure that we’ll hear more about this film come award season; it has already done quite well on the festival circuit. The contrast of Turing’s secret heroics to his public persecution is staggering and helps elevate the narrative of the film. This film chronicles a pivotal, but mostly unknown, chapter of WWII and lead by a perfectly nuanced performance by Cumberbatch it is an important and entertaining movie.

The Imitation Game opened on Friday.

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Post Halloween, Election and Daylight Saving Time Edition

 

I don’t know about you, but this last week has been kind of a crazy one – between Halloween, Daylight Savings Time and Election Day, there was just a lot going on. Even though I didn’t have to take anyone out trick or treating or worry about anyone’s sleep cycle getting thrown out of whack, there was just something about the last seven days that felt a little off. Maybe it’s the Thera-Flu that I’ve been guzzling every evening in an attempt to shake this cold that’s been bringing me down. Whatever it is, I’m glad that things have settled down  bit – well, as settled as my life ever is.

I was worried that the pop culture roundup would be a little light this week, with so much attention focused on other things, but thankfully that wasn’t the case. After being momentarily distracted, the pop culture machine continued to pump out all sorts goodness for us to consume. Thank goodness for that! So without further ado, here are some of the pop culture stories that you may have missed while you were trick or treating, oversleeping and voting.

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  • Once again the Neil Patrick Harris family wins Halloween:

  • Amy Poehler played Game of Thrones trivia with George R.R. Martin on Late Night:

 

Time for some trailers….

  • Furious 7:

 

  • Minions!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

  • A first look at Chappie:

 

  • A final Annie trailer:

 

  • A Most Violent Year:

 

  • McFarland, USA:

 

  • The final Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part 1) trailer:

 

  • Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever:

 

  • A new season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee:

 

  • A teaser for the new season of Archer:

 

  • A look at the new season of Girls:

 

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  • This is cool – T-Pain performing without Auto-Tune

 

  • Watch Prince’s eight minute set from SNL:

 

  • Speaking of which, Conan reviewed the game in his latest installment of “Clueless Gamer”:

 

  • Jon Hamm was on @midnight:

 

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  • Nathan Fillion is putting together a team for the zombie apocalypse. I like where his head’s at:

 

As always, we end with the supercuts and mashups

  • Here’s a supercut of kids dancing to “Shake It Off”:

 

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  • A compilation of Ellen scarring celebrities:

 

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  • The Real Housewives of Horror:

 

  • The cast of Breaking Bad sings “Crystal Blue Persuasion”:

 

  • Middle school students did a shot-for-shot remake of the Ghostbusters trailer:

 

  • A supercut of Kramer stealing Jerry’s food on Seinfeld:

 

  • And finally, last night wasn’t a great night for President Obama, but The Tonight Show had him “Shake it off”: