Movie Review ~ Doctor Strange

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Scott Adkins, Amy Landecker, Benedict Wong

Director: Scott Derrickson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Can I let you in on a little secret?  Every time I hear the phrase ‘space time continuum’ in a movie I start to look for the nearest exit.  After years of taking in sci-fi movies that zig zag and fold back on themselves (like Interstellar and Inception) I’m at the point where any talk of the butterfly effect, messing with the natural order, or the aforementioned space time continuum means that naptime is imminent for The MN Movie Man.

I make this admission at the start of my review of Doctor Strange so you know that though I went in with mid-range expectations for Marvel’s latest superhero origin story (as 2nd tier as the Doctor Strange character may be), the moment the talk turned to time travel my internal timer started its countdown to impatience.  Here’s a film with a lot of heavy hitters and some big ideas that can never corral them all into being on the same page at the same time. What made previous Marvel films work so well (aside from Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and Ant-Man) was a meeting of the minds where effects and character lived in entertaining harmony.

Shades of the first Iron Man haunt the first quarter of the movie as we meet a brilliant but uncouth surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) known for his steady hand and icy heart.  A terrible car crash (never text and drive, ok?) leaves him scarred and shaky but just as cool and distant to those that care for him.  Exhausting his options medically he hears of a possible miracle cure near Kathmandu and it’s there he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, Trainwreck) who opens a new world of possibilities.

As he regains his strength and explores the untapped regions of his consciousness, Strange becomes wrapped up in a plot orchestrated by a nasty villain (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, who has a PhD in playing bad guys) and his crew of disciples wearing some fierce drag make-up to, what else?, destroy humanity.  Leaping from Hong Kong to London to New York, Strange makes a pit stop to get some medical attention from a former colleague and love interest (Rachel McAdams, Spotlight) before being chased through a kaleidoscopic parallel universe where the world gets turned literally upside down and inside out.

If you’re like me and are literally physically exhausted by movies that are all flash and special effects spectacle, you’ll get the same bad taste in your mouth from Marvel’s newest piece in their larger cinematic puzzle.  The best parts of Doctor Strange are also the most taxing on the brainwaves and when you add a 3D presentation on top of it all it’s time for the theaters should pass out free barf bags.  I don’t get queasy in movies but almost from the start I was nervously wondering where I would toss my cookies if I was forced to flee.

Yeah, the effects are impressive (and pleasantly colorful) when it counts but too often give off the stink of third level craftsmanship.  That goes for the script as well with McAdams’ character being so tragically underwritten they couldn’t even find a place for her to show up in the last 40 minutes.  Swinton seems to be having a crazy ball as a bald headed mystic (sketched in the comics as an elderly Asian man…oy) but Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) looks like he wants to cry for the majority of his screen time.  It’s only in the closing credits (it’s a Marvel movie, you know you need to stay to the end, right?) that we see what may have attracted him to the role.

That brings us to Cumberbatch who is merely serviceable in the title role.  Sitting here I can’t think who would have been better but the character is so onerous in his bravado that Cumberbatch has no room to wiggle around in.  Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) doesn’t do him any favors by allowing a cape to steal the scenes it shares with Cumberbatch…yes you read the right, Cumberbatch gets upstaged by an article of clothing.

If credit should go to something, it should be to the entire cast for giving it the good old college try with some very silly material.  Cumberbatch and his gang have a way of conjuring portals to hop continents by doing a modified “wax on” sort of motion and around the 100th time this action is performed I had to let a laugh escape.  The sight of all these characters making something out of nothing draws some obvious parallels to the Oscar nominees playing them.  Destined to be one of the films you’ll beg to skip if doing a Marvel marathon down the road, Doctor Strange wheezes when it should whallop.

The Silver Bullet ~ Deliver Us From Evil

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBxTF_DxN8k

Synopsis: A NYC police officer joins forces with an unconventional priest schooled in the rituals of exorcism to combat the possessions that are terrorizing their city.

Release Date:  July 2, 2014

Thoughts: I can’t help it.  I eat these based on a true-story-demonic-horror-films up with glee.  I appreciate that it appears we’ve moved past the B-movie trash filmmaking these slick horror films have employed for years and into a more sophisticated take on the scare.  Scott Derrickson earned high praise from me for directing two of the more superior horror films in the last decade, Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, so I’m inclined to have faith that Deliver Us From Evil will follow suit.  This first teaser trailer may be longer than I’d have liked but it has a nice little payoff.

The Silver Bullet ~ Devil’s Knot

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Synopsis: The savage murders of three young children sparks a controversial trial of three teenagers accused of killing the kids as part of a satanic ritual.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: Aside from a Broadway musical, I’m not sure if any visual art hasn’t taken a stab at the crime saga surrounding the West Memphis Three.  After the three landmark Paradise Lost documentaries and one recent feature documentary (West of Memphis) the story has now been adapted into a film starring two Oscar winners under the direction of an Oscar nominated director.  So why doesn’t the first trailer for the big screen treatment of Mara Leveritt’s well-researched investigative novel land better?

For me, it’s because I feel it’s all been done before using the real life players that have been involved in the tragedy.  We’ve seen the faces of the murdered children and the three young boys that were targeted as their killers.  We’ve followed their families, seen the pain of loss, and the gnawing feeling that the real person or persons responsible remain unpunished.  Can good actors like Reese Witherspoon (This Means War, Mud) and Colin Firth (Arthur Newman) get across that same emotion?

Originally positioned as an awards contender, after some early screenings the buzz is considerably lower and who knows how large of a release this will even get.  That’s too bad because this has a fantastic cast…however I think they’re simply stuck in a re-telling of events we’re familiar with.

31 Days to Scare – Sinister

The Facts:

Synopsis: Found footage helps a true-crime novelist realize how and why a family was murdered in his new home, though his discoveries put his entire family in the path of a supernatural entity.

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Nicholas King, Clare Foley, Victoria Leigh, Juliet Rylance, Michael Hall D’Addario

Director: Scott Derrickson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: This year has been a curious one for horror.  We started off on shaky ground with The Devil Inside, found some good scares in The Woman in Black, were puzzled by Silent House, discovered the wonderful Cabin in the Woods, avoided The Raven, hated The Apparition, were impressed with The Possession, and enjoyed our trip to The House at the End of the Street.  Now, 2012 is showing that it still has one last scare up its sleeve with the devious Sinister…well at least until Paranormal Activity 4 comes out next week.  

While it doesn’t have has many secret plot points like Cabin in the Woods, I’m still going to keep this as relatively spoiler free as I can.  I’d encourage you to skip viewing the trailer or TV ads as they do give away some of the scares that don’t play quite as well if you know what you’re going to see.  What the ads don’t show is that the film goes beyond being merely scary and dips its gnarled toes into the genuinely unpleasant category. 

The startlingly youthful looking Hawke plays a washed up true-crime novelist that had his 15 minutes of fame a decade ago and is on the hunt for his next shot at the big time.  Dragging his family to a new town and new home, he is focused on delving into the mystery surrounding a murdered family and a missing child.  What he finds in the attic sets into motion a series of events/scares/spooky occurrences that leave you wondering why anyone would stick around to see what’s going bump in the night.  More than a few times when a loud noise would awaken a family member I silently said to myself “I’d be outta there” and thought that I would happily stay in a Holiday Inn for the evening instead.

Whereas the majority of horror films are interested in the easy scare, Sinister seems to be more invested in fashioning increasingly disturbing situations to present to its audience.  From frame one, the audience is placed in the role of voyeur to acts of violence that are pretty horrific in their, ahem, execution…especially in that they involve the wholesale murder of adults as well as children.  For some, I think the film will be too much to take and several of the images still linger in my mind after a restless night of tossing and turning.   

Sinister distances itself from the run-of-the-mill horror film in a few appreciated ways.  There seems to be equal weight given to the scares and character development…maybe a little too much so.  Though director/screenwriter Derrickson (who also wrote and directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose) writes well, a few of these extended familial arguments go on a little too long and are a tad too repetitive to land as well as they should.  That’s overall a fault of Derrickson the director who probably could have trimmed these scenes and not actors like Hawke and Rylance who do their best with overtly hokey-pokey dialogue.

Derrickson isn’t afraid to let the film be talky at a few select points but there are some times when less is more.  Too often actors will inexplicably narrate what they are doing or thinking…a gimmick used when the director doesn’t know how else to convey something to their audience.  Why does Hawke write and speak the line “Where is Stephanie?” when we already know that’s the crime he’s investigating.  Also, a sage local yokel cop (Ransone) is good comic relief…until you understand that he’s really just an onscreen guide for audiences that haven’t been able to keep up.

At its core, the film is a mystery waiting to be solved and if you’re like me you’ll catch on pretty fast what’s happening.  The film makes a sharp left turn about halfway through and though the film becomes less and less interesting after that it doesn’t become less effective.  Thanks to an eerie and dissonant sound design and clever misdirection, you’ll probably get the scares you’re looking for at one point or another.  I absolutely was caught off guard a few times and nearly levitated out of my seat along with the rest of my group. 

Delivering the scares it promises in addition to some added nightmare-inducing images, Sinister is a solid horror film from a team of players that take a sick fascination at pushing the limits of our will.  I wanted to look away several times but couldn’t take my eyes off of what was unspooling onscreen.   It’s a pretty bleak and unforgiving film overall so make sure you go into it prepared to get yourself back to a happy place somehow after.