Doctor Strange Review

Damn it, I thought I had finished with these back in the summer. But no, now that Marvel and DC are releasing several movies per year, they have to stretch them out well past the usual release days. Marvel started their Phase Three earlier this year with Civil War, and now the second in the series is out in cinemas.

Doctor Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen and is directed by Scott Derrickson. The film follows Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), a brilliant neurosurgeon. After a car accident leaves him without the use of his hands, he trains in the mystic arts to try and heal himself.

The acting and cast range from being passable to looking incredibly bored. I wasn’t a fan of Cumberbatch’s casting as Strange, but he was fine , nothing too terrible about him. Tilda Swinton looks uninterested most of the time, not displaying any emotion throughout the film. Mads Mikkelsen is woefully underused, and is reduced to spouting nonsense in his scenes. Like most Marvel villains, he isn’t as interesting as he could have been. The best character is probably Rachel McAdams as Strange’s half-love interest. While it’s generic to see the only lady Strange interacts with reduced to the love interest, she manages to rise above the typecasting.

The special effects featured heavily in the promotion, and if you’re just wanting to go to the cinema for some pretty visuals, then Doctor Strange is a good choice. Due to the mystic arts, the world starts to fold in on itself and creates kaleidoscopic patterns across the screen. It’s very much like the city sequences in Inception or Paprika, but on a much larger scale. There is even a homage to Inception later on during a fight in a hallway, where the world keeps rotating, making the characters continually fall over and slide around.

The action scenes though leave a lot to be desired. Throughout the film we see students at the monastery that Strange visits practising kung fu, and even Strange starts fight training later on, but when it actually gets to the fisticuffs, it’s less Crouching Tiger and more Taken 3. The camera shakes around and cuts to odd angles, before showing us a pile of bodies on the floor. It gets even worse when the characters start using their powers. While they look good (the film does use CGI well), most of them are just a maelstrom of particle effects. They clog up the screen with so much visual pizzazz that we miss all the interesting parts. The final action scene though, when Strange and his teammates start using a more complex series of spells (and some ones that I won’t say here for the sake of spoilers), they do make the finale a visual delight.

Apart from the visuals though, there is not much going on underneath. The story is the same bog-standard origin that they’ve been recycling since the original Iron Man all the way back in 2008.You can pretty much guess how most of the film is going to play out, until the final third when things start to get a little meta. The third act seems to get going before the second act is even over, which signals a problem with how the film has been edited. The film doesn’t telegraph how much time has passed, it almost looks like Strange has become a master magician within the space of a week. The jokes as well are rather poor. Cumberbatch is the main deliverer of them, but they really don’t fit with his character. It would have been better to keep Strange as the stoic, mystery man that the trailers made him appear to be rather than popping out jokes now and again.

In the end, apart from some of the trippy visuals and the new character, Doctor Strange really has nothing new to show for itself. I guess if you’re heavily invested in the series you’ll have already seen it or be making plans, but for others, just leave it be.

Score: 6/10 Some cool visuals now and again don’t carry an entire film.

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Triple 9 Review

We’re in the dead zone of cinema at the time of writing. All the Oscar/BAFTA/Golden Globes nominations have come and gone through the theatres and now we’ve got a hard slog until the middle of March (March is when the releases start getting good again). But, as I always try and get a film reviewed once a week, here is the film that interested me the most. I give you Triple 9.

Triple 9 stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet and Woody Harrelson and is directed by John Hillcoat. The films follows a group of dirty cops who to pull off an impossible heist, decide to commit a Triple 9, the radio call for an “officer down” to distract the police force.

While the script is pretty poor, the cast list is pretty good. As well as the four big names mentioned above, the supporting roles are also filled with great actors and actresses. Norman Reedus, Aaron Paul, Cilfton Collins Jr. and Gal Gadot all do their best with what is a weak script. There is no lines that stick in my mind, but all the actors manage to perform well.

The film starts with a heist and it has some great tracking shots through the bank. While it might never reach the heights of Heat or Public Enemies (both directed superbly by Michael Mann) it still manages to be tense and adrenalin-fuelled. The climax of the scene is an escape on the freeway, while red clouds of smoke (from tainted bills swiped during the robbery) billow out of the escape vehicle. It’s a great opening to the film and captures the feel of the film in a few minutes.

While the film is generally a thriller, the rest of the action is of merit. A raid on a drug-dealers house that eventually spills out into a running gun battle through the streets is exciting, with gunshots coming from all around. The police officers are confused from where they are being shot from and so are we. Another more downbeat action scene, which involves Casey Affleck’s straight cop Chris trying to track Anthony Mackie’s dirty cop Gabe through a dilapidated housing project, despite there not being much action on screen is still very enjoyable to watch. It feels almost like a horror film, as we jump at shadows that could be a violent end for our protagonist.

One thing I did like about Triple 9 was that the film was set in Atlanta. Originally it was to be set in Los Angeles but I’m glad it wasn’t. We’ve seen L.A. in so many films before (it’s also the setting for Heat, just to keep the comparisons coming), it gets kind of repetitive. We see several different locations throughout the film and all of them are varied. The abandoned housing complex is really well visualised and is unlike anything I’ve seen in a similar film. It’s just a light touch to change the setting but it pays dividends.

The film has its faults. I already talked about the weak script, but in general the story is your average heist affair, with nothing really standout. The crooked cops might have been a fresh take, but the film never explains how or why they started robbing banks, which would have added some character to the rather bland protagonists. And as a final point, the film runs for a lot longer than it needs to. The film is brushing at two hours, when really it could have been fine at closer to ninety minutes. I checked my watch a few times in the final half hour and could see a good deal that could have been cut.

In summary, Triple 9 is your average thriller. It doesn’t get to heights of films such as End Of Watch or Sicario, but in a month of slow releases, it’s a fine choice.

Score: 7/10 Nothing new, but still enjoyable.

The Martian Review

Ridley Scott has been on an impressive string of duds. Despite directing two of the best sci-fi films ever made (Alien and Blade Runner) his recent filmography has included critical failures such as Exodus: Gods And Kings, The Counsellor and 2010’s Robin Hood. With his (second) return to science fiction, can Ridley Scott recover from these gigantic failures?

The Martian stars Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor and is directed by Ridley Scott. Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, the film follows astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) as he is accidently left behind by his crewmates on Mars after being believed dead.

The Martian looks spectacular. While many of the space station and base camp scenes were shot on sound stages, the outdoor Mars scenes were shot in Wadi Rum in Jordan. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski has captured several stunning aerial landscapes of the Red Planet, and they are a joy to look at. The blood red sand and epic rock formations are unlike anything I’ve seen committed to film before and knowing that it wasn’t just endless CGI creations makes it even better.

The rest of the cinematography is also brilliant from a technical and practical standpoint. Several Ridley Scott cinematic tropes appear in the film, including a gorgeous 360 degree spin of the camera near the finale which unfortunately doesn’t stick around long enough to fully enjoy it.

For a sci-fi adventure, the script is remarkably witty and funny. Matt Damon’s portrayal of astronaut Mark Watney shows a man who realises the crushing loneliness and possible futility of his location and decides to make a joke out of it. Through Watney’s constant video logging we get to listen to his stream of conscience, usually laced with profanity or a smart quip about his surroundings. These jokes are a brilliant way of characterising Watney as a man who likes to make a¬†joke out of his desperate and almost hopeless¬†situation.

That’s not to say the film is all laughs though. There are some great moments where Matt Damon shows off his vast acting ability and starts to break under the weight of being stranded on Mars, only to slowly pull himself back together so that he can finally make his way back home. There are even some incredibly tense, stomach-turning moments, such as when Watney has to perform amateur surgery involving pliers and a stapler, or another where his space-helmet gets cracked during a malfunction at his base camp. The final ten minutes made my heart fly into my mouth as Watney is finally at the peril of gravity, using all of his might to try and escape the atmospheric pull of Mars. It’s a master-class in tension, something that even suspense and horror films don’t get right from time to time.

While Ridley Scott films have been known for their excellent soundtrack (Hans Zimmer’s OST of Gladiator is phenomenal, as well as Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner) the score for The Martian feels a little flat. The only track that I liked was “Crossing Mars”, and that was mainly due to it accompanying one of Wolski’s landscape shots. The rest of the score is rather generic, with no noticeable or memorable motifs. The film however does have a large array of licensed 70s disco music, with songs such as Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” and ABBA’s “Waterloo”. These songs usually come with a running commentary by Watney about how he hates the disco music that he is stuck with, but soon enough he starts dancing along, making the audience laugh enough more.

The other problem (like many other films I’ve reviewed) is the run time. The film is just short of two and half hours, which is longer than many feature films recently. While the film cuts back and forth between Watney surviving on Mars and NASA running through ideas to save him, the film does stay with the NASA side for a good half an hour during the middle of the film. While I wasn’t bored during these scenes I was more interested in seeing what was happening back on Mars, it felt like they dragged on for quite a while. And although I praised the landscape shots at the beginning of this review, there were several that could have been taken out of the film as they served no real narrative purpose.

Overall, The Martian is an triumphant return to form for Ridley Scott. Funnier than most comedies, tenser than most suspense movies and enough techno-talk for the scientists without losing the mainstream audience, The Martian could well be one of the best of the year.

Score: 8/10 Brilliant escapist fun from a legendary director.