Dr Strange plays it safe but looks good doing it

Marvel’s latest is a visual spectacle when it decides to deviate from it’s simple formula

Marvel movies are a huge part of modern cinema and with 2-3 movies expected each year for the next five years it is hard to see the end of the trend. So, with this saturation of the market is it possible that the company can keep things fresh to counter the inevitable superhero fatigue? There is an answer given to this by Dr Strange and the answer is an assured ‘eh, maybe.’

The film is a harbinger of times to come for Marvel as one of the first ventures into B-string heroes. Although there will be comic fans that defend him, the fact cannot be argued that Dr Strange has never been a hero that has hit the mainstream in the way that it’s previous movie tentpoles have done.

There remains one outlier, in the form of Marvel’s best film yet, Guardians of the Galaxy, wherein Marvel had their favourite shortcut to entertainment seized from their grasps. In Guardians of the Galaxy they could not rely on the moment of easy movie magic where the hero finally puts on the mask, where they become the hero that everyone is anticipating. This could not happen in Guardians of the Galaxy because most people watching had no prior knowledge about these heroes. Dr Strange suffers from the same limitation, luckily he wears a magic cape, so viewers can still be treated to the moment of apotheosis that defines the origin story.

But enough about Marvel, what about the film.

The film follows Benedict Cumberbatch as Steven Strange, an arrogant surgeon who has watched too many episodes of House. He is rich, selfish and inconsiderate to those around him until he is involved in a 100mph car crash and loses the use of his hands transforming him into a rich selfish and inconsiderate man obsessed with fixing his hands. His journey takes him to a Nepalese mountain village where he is introduced to the world of magic… And then there’s an evil plot by an interchangeable villain using this magic that Strange must help fight against. In many senses, it is the same story we have seen before, only the characters and setting have changed. It is a MCU movie base layer with a Batman Begins/ House MD filter applied.

Where Dr Strange shines is in its embracing of its magical origins, there is a trend in Marvel movies to over explain the science behind certain occurrences, often grounding it in an unneeded reality that is a residual effect of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. In a scene in Dr Strange, Tilda Swinton’s all-knowing guru The Ancient One continually knocks back Strange’s attempts to find a scientific explanation for magic. This is one of the best, most self-aware moments of the film in which the film announced that it is something new and different and it is immediately followed up by the stand out moment of the film, where Strange is taken on a journey through the multiverse and shown the level of understanding that he is completely unable to comprehend. It is a scene that’s a showcase for some incredible visual effects more akin to Enter the Void than Iron Man and a promise of things to come later in the movie.

However, other than a few fight scenes which exploit Inception style city bending and trigger happy fractals the multiverse is left in the background, serving as a stage for fight choreography and as a servant to the on-Earth drama. There is an attempt to bring the multiverse into the story but it is shoehorned into the end, a great touch and end to a film that did not precede it. Easy comedy beats fall flat, Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen are more than wasted and the desperation to make Stephen Strange the next Tony Stark are blatant. There are multiple great moments in the film that enthral but stink of wasted potential.

Recommendation

Ultimately it does not use enough of what makes it stand out to make a great film but my faith in Marvel’s future remains intact. They continue to be entertaining, but entertaining in the same way, a way that can become tiresome but has not completely crossed that line yet.

Dr Strange leaves the formula as is but changes up the visuals enough to be new and interesting. It takes some risks but not enough. On the whole it is less than the sum of its parts, but some of its parts are fantastic.

Grimsby is an efficient tonal mess

Sacha Baron Cohen’s dull spy movie can’t be saved by one wacky character

Grimsby is a movie which follows two brothers on the run from the law for shooting a small refugee child with AIDs. Yes, really.

The character of Nobby (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a binge drinking, council estate living, benefits cheat with seven kids who discovers the whereabouts of his long-lost brother Sebastian (Mark Strong) and attempts to reconnect with him.

The plot is simple, but the film somehow finds a way to make it seem baffling. It’s a straightforward premise that the film stumbles towards explaining through painfully acted flashbacks with child actors, and humourless scenes in which heart strings are ineffectually tugged at within the opening ten minutes of the movie. The film is somewhat of a tonal mess due to this as it clearly has all its money on comedy. It derives its laughs mainly from class humour and gross out gags, with the town of Grimsby being portrayed in a comically caricatured squalor that makes Borat’s Kazakhstan look like Covent Garden.  Grimsby is an outlandish, offensive character with such over the top flaws and a fool proof confidence that he does work to an extent as a lead man, bumped somewhat by the talents of Cohen.

It is not necessary for a comedy film to have a good plot, sometimes they can get by without one at all. Nevertheless, it is secondary to the jokes, I could not for the life of me remember the plot to The Naked Gun despite having seen it dozens of times, it doesn’t take away from the impact of the film. The fact that comedy can stand on its own in a way that drama cannot is the reason why sketch comedies exist, why YouTube personalities and Vine stars can make a name for themselves. Comedy in its basest form is non-contextual.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s career seems to be built on a foundation of uncomfortable laughs, whether it is cringe humour, racist humour, or gross out humour there is always an underlying thought that you shouldn’t really be laughing at it. At many points in Grimsby it felt as if I should not be laughing at it because it was in many cases too puerile. However, some of its most puerile jokes are also its most fruitful which helps me to forgive the film its biggest misgivings.

What strikes me as most strange about Grimsby is how little time it dedicates to let moments land. It is clearly a vehicle for crass jokes and physical comedy and so the comedy should take priority. Yet we are still constantly jolted around from plot point to plot point to serve the story. Editing is too fast paced to allow for any joke to be truly enjoyed. There is a scene in which Sebastian must embark on a mission but has accidentally been given heroin by Nobby. Jodie finds out about this from Nobby and has almost no reaction to finding out her straight edge partner is in a heroin induced stupor. She instead immediately tells Nobby that he must perform the mission instead, there is absolutely no comedic pay off for the solid set up. Instead the whole heroin issue serves only to push Nobby into another situation where he can be common and inappropriate.

Therein lies the issue with the movie, it does not deviate from its main plot, it is perhaps to streamlined for a comedy film. It does not skewer its target enough to be clever and it does not set itself up for higher quality jokes with set ups, it simply takes what it can get in the moment. Ultimately the time flies by and the film is mostly forgettable because each scene is conflicted between serving the comedic vision or the naff spy plot.

Recommendation

There is a sweet point in movie comedy, when an obvious or crass joke reaches a level of ridiculousness that it comes all the way back around that it becomes funny again. Grimsby reaches this point at multiple times throughout its short running time but fails to maintain a consistent level of humour on a scene by scene basis.  Not enough laughs to make a decent film, but just enough to stave off feelings of regret for sitting through it for 90 minutes.

I am sure that there are many 14-year-old boys in school that would love this movie and many people, myself included, will delight in discussing or describing “the elephant scene” to anyone that will listen.

Sully finds competency, but not entertainment, in this by the motions real life story

Eastwood’s latest fails to land on solid ground

Clint Eastwood’s latest take on real life drama casts America’s favourite actor Tom Hanks as real life hero, Chesley Sullenberger; who performed an emergency landing of an airline onto the Hudson river in 2009, saving all 155 souls on board. Truly an inspiring story of human ability and courage, yet somehow manages to fall flat dramatically when committed to film. There is potential for a good movie in there but it is not helped by the format. The movie’s good moments were so sporadic and detached from the rhythm of the plot that all they did was serve to expose the lacklustre structure of the movie. The film jumps about like an episode of LOST, it must frequently re grab the audience’s attention by throwing out a dream sequence in which Sully imagines a plane crash to distract from the drab nondrama of the post Hudson landing world.

The opposition of the film comes from Sully facing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who wish to discover whether human error was involved in the landing. The film uses nonstop close-ups of Tom Hanks’ sullen face to trick viewers into believing that Sully could have made a mistake, but throughout the entire film we are constantly told that Sully is a great man, a model professional, a true hero. It is never in any doubt that Sully was in the right yet Eastwood attempts to squeeze as much drama as possible out of this nonstarter of a conflict; and it remains the only conflict in the movie other than Airplanes vs birds.

The point that resonates with me most is that Sully appears to be a film that is struggling for content to pad the already short viewing time. Excuses must be found to redo the same scene multiple times, usually by just sticking a pointless scene in between them. There are two flashbacks that were visited needlessly and both served the same purpose, to show us that Sully is a pilot. Something which the movie poster, the first scene, Tom Hanks’ jacket, the multiple people that call him captain, the news media and the fact that we see him piloting a plane already tell us. They are needlessly padding the film to give justification to scenes wherein Sully walks around feeling sad and to trick audiences into thinking something is happening.

The emotional crux of the film is of course the showing of the emergency landing and the rescuing of the 155 passengers and crew. There is a moment after the main action sequence in which passengers are waiting on the wing of the plane as the coast guard come to pick them up. The camera cuts to a reporter stating that the Hudson is so cold that “the passengers have literally minutes to live” to inject some tension into a scene which is not tense as the film has repeatedly told us that everyone survived.

Sully ham-handedly delivers a diatribe at the end of the movie about how it was everyone that day who the hero, about how the co-pilot, stewardesses, coastguard etc all pulled together to fight for everyone else. A nice message, a true message, but one that was so poorly developed through the previous hour and a half that the message does not feel earned. I am reminded of a much better film, United 93, which had this message and delivered it through casting a wide net over it’s characters, giving them all a sense of real humanity and honesty. Whereas Sully dedicates approximately two lines of dialogue each to the passengers of the plane that it attempts to trick its audience into empathising with.

Overall the film comes across as too drab, Tom Hanks is without any of his usual charisma and the only comic relief in the film comes from Aaron Eckhart’s Jeff Skiles, who makes, by my count, three jokes in the entire film. Now I’m not saying that the film needs to be funny but it fails to be dramatic by telling us that everyone survives and then attempting to make us fear for passenger’s lives an hour in. That is not how tension works.

Recommendation

On the whole the movie appears to be conjuring a dramatic story where there was none. Most conflict comes from Sully’s internal struggles and the bureaucrats he faces who are made into moronic strawmen. There is not much in the way of stakes in this story which tells us how it ends at the very beginning.

Entertainment is minimal but the movie has a simple enough plot and moral code that anyone could follow. Dont go out of your way to watch it, but it is generally fine.

Watch United 93 instead.

Feudal Japan is a terrifying playground in Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo teaches valuable lessons in film veiwership against a stunning backdrop

‘If you must blink, do it now.’ These words are spoken at the start of Kubo and the Two Strings by our protagonist and set the tone for the rest of the film, which talks to its young audience in a straight forward and non-patronising way throughout. ‘Pay careful attention to everything you see no matter how unusual it may seem,’ it begs active viewing, to watch it intently, to notice all the little details of the world and piece them together. ‘If you look away, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.’ It is a story about stories, and it drills home the simple idea that a story is nothing without people to hear it. A moral that lends the film an air of sadness due to its current box office shortcomings, having the lowest opening of any of Laika’s previous films (Coraline, Paranorman, The Boxtrolls)

From the very first scene this movie marvels in its visuals and doesn’t stop until after the closing credits. The opening scene fills the screen with wild walls of water, harking back to Hokusai’s Great Wave, which influences every aspect of the film’s design. The world of the film makes Feudal Japan a playground, mixing the mythological with the traditional, placing secular magic side by side with notes strung from a three stringed shamisen that propel origami stage plays.

Kubo is the type of film that transports you to a completely new world, one that is never overly explained but is always dense and detailed in the background. Scenes that take place in ‘the far lands’ are filled with elegant background details that are left to the viewer to interpret, ‘pay careful attention to everything you see, no matter how unusual it may seem’. The history of the world is only spoken about, stories are told of the great Samurai Hanzo but never shown through flashbacks, they are left to the interpretation of the viewer and their surrogate Kubo. The stories of the world are how you make it and you really get the impression that the actions of Kubo and friends are creating a story that will be told about in the same way that stories of Hanzo are lauded around crowds.

But where the movie really excels is in its design. The stop motion is so smooth it can sometimes go unnoticed, but the craftsmanship can be spotted in any frame if you pay attention. The villains are incredibly villainous and nightmarish in a way that would stick in a kid’s mind. There are battle scenes within the film that are loaded with a sense of grandeur, that feel like Zelda boss battles.

I have a keen interest in chidren’s entertainment and the way that the essential morals need to be intertwined with a complete story. The limitations of the media lead to interesting choices and compromises. Kubo impresses me with the way it deals with danger and light horror, it puts you in mind of earlier generation kid’s movies like The Neverending Story or Labyrinth, which blend imagination and fantasy with an undercurrent of real danger. The brutal treatment of the characters has a real weight to it. There is a moment in Kubo that takes place on a ship in the middle of a storm where I was genuinely concerned for Kubo, Monkey and Beetle’s lives for separate reasons, and this is a feeling I didn’t have while watching any Pixar movie (with the exception of Toy Story 3). The film builds a sense of greatness, dread and stakes while still maintaining its small scale charm, it has few characters so it fleshes them out nicely and keeps the story feeling self-contained and familiar along with a grand overarching plot.

Recommendation

Go see this movie, give it your money, let studios know that this is the type of entertainment that is needed for kids. Real danger, high stakes, iconic design that will last that is not just loaded down with pop culture references and cutesy talking animals.

The film transported me as a grown up and should last for years in the mind of any children who see it. Scare your children, teach them a lesson.

Hell or High Water adds grey clouds to the Western landscape

Hell or High Water feels in love with the western and embraces it’s origins

There’s a fine line between action and saturation, and an even finer line between anticipation and boredom, many films have trouble with this balance but not Hell or High Water. The film drops you right into post-recession Texas, hitting you over the head with exposition and one moment later you are in a bank, and the bank is being robbed. There’s humour in the scene and thrills and an immediate Coen brothers air of people being way out of their depth. It pushes you right off into the deep end and once you’ve gotten your breath back it pushes your head back under the water. It does this for almost two hours straight.

Being, in essence, a road movie, the story moves pretty fast, hopping from place to place and never repeating itself. It presents itself as a series of vignettes and character moments, fleshing out its two power couples organically throughout without ever feeling too try hard. One scene near the beginning is all it takes, in which bank robber brothers Toby (Chris Pines) and Tanner (Ben Foster) neatly lay out their motivations. The scene is wonderfully framed outside of a farmhouse, a large steel windpump loudly creaking behind all the talking. Their relationship is unwieldly and bound for danger. Officers Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Parker (Gil Birmingham) motivations are simple, they’re cops, they’re going to hunt robbers.

The film feels in love with the western and embraces its origins, the settings being of small towns filled with local people wearing cowboy hats and moustaches. It wears its influences proudly, the brothers gain their head start due to a technological fault at the bank, allowing them to engage in the freewheeling banditry of the old west. The cop and his native American sidekick must put into place old school police work and rely on testimony rather than CCTV footage. The robberies are a response to a ploy to steal land. The film harks back to the past thematically and literally, through the mouth of Bridges’ soon to be retired cop and through the stoic Native American mouthpiece, Parker, which brings me to my biggest criticism of the film.

Through all the subtle touches and symbolism in the movie, the film draws nice little parallels to class struggles and the American frontier without feeling too forced or preachy, that is until the point where Parker points to a Texas bank and basically says to the audience “here is the message of the film. Banks are bad, okay?” The scene was jarring and way too on the nose for a film so restraint. That being said I can’t be upset about this, the film is smartly written, funny and stunningly beautiful at times. If my biggest complaint about a movie is my only complaint, then it’s done pretty well for itself.

Recommendation

A rare type of film that feels both nostalgic and current, pulled together by good performances and funny interactions. Jeff Bridges provides the comedic glue and Ben Foster brings the sleaze.

Western fans should love it; its desert towns are the perfect setting for the crime. The action is spread out so that when it hits it hits hard. Not a fast paced thriller, although the 100 minutes did fly by.