“Doctor Strange” Is Yet Another Marvel Superhero Movie

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016)

Doctor Strange, the latest in what now threatens to be an eternity of movies based on Marvel Comics characters, has a lot going for it. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), in the title role, is one of them. So is Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). And Tilda Swinton (A Bigger Splash), the controversy over her “whitewashed” casting notwithstanding. And Mads Mikkelsen (A Royal Affair). Basically, the cast is terrific. As are the visual effects, which plunge us directly into a world of fast-paced action and adventure.

Unfortunately, as lovely as these various elements may be, there is a lack of originality to the proceedings that speaks to creative fatigue of the highest order. Whether it’s the Inception-inspired building-bending cityscapes, the Nepalese hideout of a mystical fighting sect ripped straight from Batman Begins (perhaps the director should check his Christopher Nolan infatuation at the door), or the climactic final showdown that copies (granted, in a way that made me chuckle) the basic premise of Groundhog DayDoctor Strange offer very little that is actually new. I suppose that’s where we are now, where people like me perhaps react with too much praise at the slightest departure from the same old same old (see my lavish review of Deadpool), just because we’re so tired of the repetition within the superhero genre. When will it end?

Now that that’s out of the way, I can also say that Doctor Strange is otherwise competently directed (by Scott Derrickson, who last gave us Deliver Us from Evil), and a fair amount of fun. We meet Doctor Stephen Strange, an arrogant neurosurgeon cut from the same cloth as another Marvel figure, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), as his overweening hubris leads to an accident that damages his hands and cuts his career short. Desperate to regain control over his life, he seeks out a mysterious group he hopes will train him to master his infirmity through (he thinks) transcendental meditation. Led by “The Ancient One” (Swinton) – who, whatever her original ethnic roots in the source material, is here at least not made to be Asian, but Celtic, so there’s that – this organization opens up a world of secret powers to Strange that recalls another recent series, Harry Potter (the derivative fun never stops!). Sadly, as is the wont with all of these movies, the origin story is not enough, so we eventually need a major villain to threaten the existence of our entire planet, which brings us to the usual massive CGI carnage that drains the joy of whatever came before in its mind-numbing mayhem. Will Strange prevail? What do you think?

As these kinds of movies go, it’s perfectly enjoyable, if empty. Go see it if you that’s what you’re looking for. I won’t judge. Or, if you’re hoping for something of greater profundity, go check out Moonlight or Certain Women, instead, which also open (at least in Baltimore) this weekend. They offer the freshness that Doctor Strange, for all its derring-do, sorely lacks.

“Trolls” Offers Positive Lessons in a Saccharine Setting

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Trolls

Trolls (Walt Dohrn/Mike Mitchell, 2016)

The newest film from Dreamworks Animation, Trolls is based on the collection of plastic dolls created by Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam in 1959. Originally called Good Luck Trolls, they’ve had quite the life since then, waxing and waning in popularity over the years. Now, courtesy of the studio that brought us the Shrek and Kung Fu Panda films, these little creatures with the neon pompadours get their very own musical adventure. Is this silly confection just what we needed in this cockeyed, crazy world or ours? Before I answer that, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to state that I went to college with one of the two screenwriters on this picture, Jonathan Aibel. And through him I’ve met one of the two directors, Mike Mitchell. Jon and his partner Glenn Berger wrote all three Kung Fu Panda movies (and many others, including The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water and Mike made Sky High. I loved all of those, and love those guys, so no matter what I write in the next paragraph, know that it isn’t motivated by any personal malice. For, you see, I did not much care for their latest collaboration.

In some ways, however, Trolls is lovely. How can one hate a film that promotes the notion that true happiness comes not from any drug one may take or product one may consume, but from within? That’s a wonderful message to convey to young children – the obvious demographic, here – and it’s driven home, and hard, in almost every scene. And since right now, in November, Trolls stands alone as one of the few options out there for the little ones, why not take your kids to see it? It’s innocuous fun, filled with bright, flashy colors and snappy songs, and if it’s rated PG (for a variety of reasons, none of them excessively violent), rather than G, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s ultimately a harmless bit of popular entertainment. Unfortunately, what cinematic delights exist within are so lightweight, for older viewers, as to be hollow, evaporating like a wad of cotton candy shoved in your mouth over and over again.

The story is a typical quest journey, with Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) of the Troll Kingdom, a happy-go-lucky sort (as are all all the Trolls but one), forced to team up with sourpuss Branch (Justin Timberlake, Runner Runner) – that one unhappy Troll – on a rescue mission to the land of the Bergens, much larger creatures who eat Trolls as a shortcut to bliss (which they are unable to achieve on their own, or so they think). Along the way, our heroes learn moral lessons while cracking jokes and singing songs. Predictably, all gets worked out at the end. Happy day.

Unfortunately, it’s those songs that undo whatever good feeling I have towards the better parts of the story. Almost as if by studio imperative (so maybe not the fault of Mitchell, Aibel and Berger), the soundtrack is filled with new versions of previously recorded music, each one underscoring (in emotions writ large) the primary beats of the narrative. The worst for me is the use of Cyndi Lauper’s hit “True Colors,” performed by Timberlake at a crucial moment in the film when all of the Trolls have descended into a monochromatic depression. The lack of originality in that choice is made worse by its obviousness. Which is too bad, because the one notable new song written for the film, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” also sung by Timberlake, is extremely catchy (and its music video, directed by Mark Romanek, who made Never Let Me Go, is more naturally joyful than the movie it supports). The bottom line is this: if you need something to see with your small children, then Trolls should serve that purpose. If you’re expecting Kung Fu Panda-like quality, however, then go back and watch that series again, instead.

Professing Pacifism, “Hacksaw Ridge” Champions Carnage

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson, 2016)

How much should a director’s personal history count when judging his or her work? We cinephiles just confronted this question with the recent release of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, for which the man’s past history of rape allegations posed a problem. Or not, depending on how one answers the initial question. Parker is not alone. We have long had to worry about folks like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, to name but two directors confronted with sex scandals of their own, as well as countless other filmmakers whose personal politics we abhor. Each of us has to decide, for ourselves, whether the art stands apart from the artist. I tend to fall on the side of judging the work, rather than the person who made it, but I am not immune from the influence of my feelings about the filmmaker, either.

And now there’s a new film from Mel Gibson, whose drunken anti-Semitic rant 10 years ago, shouted after he was pulled over for a DUI, cast a seemingly permanent pall over a once-illustrious career as both actor and director. To be honest, I have always liked Gibson, the actor – including in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 Hamlet, where he made a fine young Prince of Denmark – and have liked at least two of the now five narrative features he has directed: the Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995) and Apocalypto (released in 2006, post-meltdown). If one is to consider context when analyzing Gibson’s latest directorial opus, however, it is perhaps of greater value to look at the thematic recurrences in his earlier works as a guide to the good and the bad in Hacksaw Ridge. Unless, of course, Gibson’s past transgressions preclude you from any thought of seeing anything else he does, which is your right.

No matter his chosen subject, Gibson always seems to be obsessed with violence, which makes it especially odd that he here focuses on the life and heroic actions of Desmond Doss, a real-life conscientious objector who, in spite of his outspoken pacifism, served in the army during World War II, enduring harassment, and worse, at the hands of his fellow soldiers before eventually risking his own life, as a medic, to save a large number of wounded men at Okinawa. It’s a beautiful story, for sure, but Gibson uses it as a template on which to layer unnecessarily gruesome images of gory, mangled and dismembered bodies on the battlefield, much as he lingered on the flayed flesh of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, distorting, in that film, the central message of Christianity (i.e., love) through an unhealthy sadomasochism (to be fair, both Braveheart and Apocalypto were similarly filled with carnage). Then again, in many of the films in which he starred, Gibson allowed himself to be tortured, as well: think of Riggs in Lethal Weapon or Porter in Payback, to name but two examples. Indeed, the Messiah didn’t just die for our sins, he suffered in unspeakable agony so that we might … watch and take our pleasure?

Here we get Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) as Doss. He gives a wonderful performance as a man who needs no physical torture to make him suffer, so consumed is he by childhood demons that have led him away from violence. In the roles of his parents, both Rachel Griffiths (Mammal) and Hugo Weaving (Strangerland), always fighting, do a great job illuminating the root causes of Doss’s pacifism (he’s also deeply religious). When war breaks out, however, Doss feels compelled to do his duty, and before long we are in basic training, something we’ve seen in countless films before, yet still one of the best parts of the movie, thanks to a winning turn by, of all people, Vince Vaughn (The Internship) as the drill sergeant. No one believes that an able-bodied young man such as Doss would choose not to fight, and so they make his life a merciless hell. Yet he remains true to his principles, and so before long joins his fellow grunts in the crucible of war, where his once-mocked insistence on saving life, rather than taking it, leads to majestic on-field heroics. After which he becomes a talisman for his unit, used as a good-luck charm for the next foray into the slaughter of battle. It’s a paradox as profound as the excess of blood thrown at the camera in the name of peace.

If you must see it, then, see it for the first half, where almost everyone shines, including Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies) as the young nurse whom Desmond marries. But what is it all for, if not to inadvertently glorify the very violence spurned by the main character? Our side prays to its God while the villainous “Japs” pray to theirs. Surely a film about peace would eschew the simplistic bad-guy/good-guy dichotomy on display here. But no; we even get the mandatory scene of ritual seppuku that so often seems de rigueur whenever the Japanese appear in a Hollywood wartime movie. This time, we even see the beheading. Thank you, Mr. Gibson, for perverting a nearly flawless opening with the final bloody mess. You clearly still have some demons of your own to work out.

Exquisite “Certain Women” Showcases Four Brilliant Actresses of Our Day

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Certain Women

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

Set in wintry Montana, Certain Women – the sixth full-length feature from Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff) – offers a narrative scope as majestic as the mountains we glimpse in the distance, with a focus as narrow as the limited opportunities available to its protagonists. Out of great specificity come universal truths (a favorite saying of mine, here and elsewhere). Three tales in one, the movie is both trilogy and triptych, each part building on the one before it while remaining on the periphery of our consciousness, never really leaving the frame. Filled with great performances and minimalist tales so nuanced we barely realize how much we have been moved until afterwards, Certain Women is that great cinematic achievement that lingers long in our imagination, merging with our dreams. Reichardt has always been a master of understatement, while never neglecting the conventions of storytelling, and here, as always, she writes enough plot details to keep us engaged with her characters, even if very little happens – externally, anyway – in two of the three segments. It’s all about the internal journey, however, and there the stakes are high and the emotional drama deeply affecting.

Based on the short stories of Montana native Maile Meloy (from 2003’s Half in Love and 2009’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It), the film follows four women over the course of its 105 minutes, each story beginning, without fanfare, while the previous one has barely ended. We’re often not even aware of the transition until we see a new face. First up is Laura (Laura Dern, Wild), a small-town lawyer whose personal-injury client takes matters into his own hands when he is dissatisfied with the results of her legal actions. Next, we meet Gina (Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz), a successful business owner, wife and mother with a seeming void at the center of her daily life. Finally, there’s Jamie (Lily Gladstone, Winter in the Blood) – whose name we never even hear – a young and lonely Native-American woman tending horses on a ranch who develops an infatuation for another young woman, Beth (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria), a just-graduated lawyer who drives four hours from the city, twice a week, to teach a class on school law. With the exception of the first section, where the client, played by the versatile character actor Jared Harris (Pompeii), resorts to violent action to solve his problems, nothing much occurs, surface-wise, to change the lives of these women. They are mostly alienated from the world around them, relegated to supporting players in their own stories.

And yet, so much roils beneath the ostensibly tranquil visage of each main character. This is a movie, above all, about loneliness, as well as the particular challenges that women face as they seek personal agency, or even just some form of identity for themselves. Dern, Williams and Stewart are all phenomenal, but we’ve come to expect great things from them (the Twilight series, notwithstanding). It’s relative newcomer Gladstone who is the real find, however. Her Jamie is the saddest one of all, without friends, isolated from all but the animals she cares for (though the sight of the joyful Welsh Corgi who frolics in her wake would occasionally be enough company for me). She longs for a connection she can barely articulate, her inchoate desires a torture to behold. Reichardt, time and again, draws subtle attention to the quotidian mundanity of her life (and, to a lesser degree, that of the other women), with divided frames, off-center compositions, long-held close-ups, and a repetition of tasks in shot after shot. Slow as the pace of the film may be, it is never monotonous,  for the interior dramas of these “certain” women are as gripping, if not more so, as the action in any broad-stroke three-act Hollywood film. It’s a beautiful and rewarding movie, and one of the best of the year.