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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

The first Doctor Strange is one of my favorite movies in the ever-expanding and incredibly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It was a visually audacious and imaginative sci-fi action movie that just had one standout set piece after another. The original director, Scott Derickson, departed over creative differences with the MCU brass, and having now seen Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I might have the same stark differences of opinion.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is still nursing his regret over his former flame, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who is now getting married to another man. During their wedding reception, Strange helps a young woman being chased by a giant one-eyed monster. America Chavez (Xochitil Gomez) is from another universe and has the power to open portals to other dimensions. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know how to control these powers and they only seem to activate when she’s reached a level of fear. Strange protects America Chavez from a malevolent force that wants to gain her unique power and open the multiverse for conquest.

It’s been almost ten years since Sam Raimi directed a movie and Multiverse of Madness is at its best when it feels most like a Raimi picture. The man’s beginnings in low-budget horror comedy are still evident, and it’s that campy combination that entertained me the most in Multiverse of Madness. There are some creepy, goofy moments that definitely reminded me of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. If you’re not a fan of these heightened levels of horror that incorporate slapstick and camp, then you might roll your eyes and find these moments to be too goofy for the MCU. As much attention as this movie has gotten for being darker, which is a tad overblown, it’s also one of the goofier Marvel movies. The MCU has a relatively breezy, wiseacre sense of humor that can occasionally undercut some of its more serious or sentimental moments of drama, but with Multiverse of Madness, Raimi is inviting the audience to laugh and cringe in equal measure. A horror sequence where reflections are a vulnerable point has both laughs and creeps. It’s a different kind of tone for a Marvel movie, which propelled my entertainment level when it occurred. Raimi getting to play once again in the superhero sandbox and still retain his signature style and impulses, which is exactly what I would want from this man as a blockbuster filmmaker. I loved the match cuts of Wanda experiencing two different universes in one smooth camera move. I cackled when Doctor Strange took his final form for the finale, and how ridiculous it looked, and that screenwriter Michael Waldron (creator of Loki) set it up with Chekov’s corpse.

For a movie with “multiverse” in its title, we don’t really get much of an exploration of the alternate universes. The concept of a multiverse is mostly kept at a thematic level and as a delivery system for wishes. The villain views the prospect of a multiverse as their means of fulfilling a vision of their life that is unrealized in their present reality. Strange thinks of an alternate version of himself where he got the girl. Beyond these reflections, that’s really about it. We jump to about two alternate realms and the only real exploration we have is that, hey, in this version of the universe people walk on red lights. It’s a bit trifling considering that there are endless imaginative possibilities, some of which are showcased during some stylish visual transition sequences crashing through different realms. It feels far too small for a concept with boundless possibility. Strange was already in another multiverse movie six months earlier with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. That movie also explored the idea of second chances, redemption, and sacrifice but far better. For a better multiverse movie that really lets loose on the wild possibilities of alternate realities, as well as grounding the feats of imagination in relatable human drama enriched by its theme, see the amazing Everything Everywhere All At Once.

I’m not just disappointed because the movie doesn’t take full advantage of its plot possibility, it’s because what it settles for is so much more predictable and disposable as fan service. This current phase of the MCU is setting up a dilemma of multiverse proportions, so things are getting very expansive and their slate of Disney Plus TV series are becoming more incorporated into the direction they’re heading. The danger starts to become whether the entire process is becoming more and more specialized, insular, and directed for the most hardcore of hardcore fans, and whether or not such a heavy undertaking, across platforms and franchises, can be done well. Marvel has earned some faith from me with how they’ve handled their interconnected franchises and film universe, but my main complaint with 2010’s Iron Man 2 and 2015’s Age of Ultron was that they were spread too thin trying to set up other movies and offshoot franchises, so this still remains a danger. As the MCU gets more and more successful, and integrates more characters, this is always a risk, the balancing of the spinning plates, making the movies their own but fitting into a larger whole. With Multiverse of Madness, it feels like the mighty gears of the Marvel machine are a little too forceful and crushing for this endeavor. This doesn’t feel like an essential next chapter in Doctor Strange’s ongoing cinematic journey. The first film was already about him regretting what his life could have been, an expert surgeon, and learning to accept his new role as a sorcerer and ultimately sacrificing his ego and old sense of self. We’re running through the same motions this time but instead of lamenting he could have been a great surgeon he’s lamenting he could have gotten the girl. It’s again coming to terms with his personal regrets.

The other notable aspect of the multiverse is the inclusion of fun but diverting cameos that don’t so much as serve this story as provide winks and nods of what is down the line. I won’t spoil who shows up in the middle portion of the movie but there are a few alternate version characters and a few characters that have yet to be fully integrated in the MCU, meaning these early appearances also serve as confirmation of the intention to bring these characters, stories, and worlds into the ever-expanding reach of their storytelling. This sequence is best as throwaway fun and has some neat visual moments including a disturbing death played for effective gallows humor. Ultimately though, it’s meaningless because it’s one other universe of characters who only serve as reflections of the past and coming attractions for the future. Even the mid-credits sequence is just more of this (and it’s becoming a trend). It’s disposable fan service and no more meaningful than serving as a tacit promise of what’s to come.

But the biggest problem I have with Multiverse of Madness is also its biggest storyline, which concerns a certain character making a big villainous turn and becoming the primary antagonist. I was getting a lot of Game of Thrones season 8 vibes from this plotting insofar as the end result is not out of the question but it sure feels like we skipped a lot of necessary stops along the way. I won’t be able to go into greater detail without delving into spoilers, so dear reader now is the time to skip to the last paragraph if you wish to remain pure. I like the concept of a friend becoming a foe because we already have an investment in that relationship and therefore there’s more at stake with the fights and possible consequences. That’s the kind of drama that lends itself to heartache and tragedy. When it feels forced, that’s a tragedy of characterization.

I have to imagine that fans of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch are going to be let down from this movie’s calamitous turn of events. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the character prior to the WandaVision TV series, which I also found to be pastiche that wore thin before finally settling on what the show’s core would examine, the messy process of one woman dealing with her powerful grief. I liked that they didn’t excuse Wanda’s misdeeds, namely holding an entire town of people hostage to her reality-bending whims. However, by the end, the show had her come to terms with letting go of Vision and her fake life with him she had manifested. To then have her next film appearance revolve around her universe-destroying mission to get her fake kids back doesn’t just feel like backtracking, it feels like we’ve erased the character journey and growth from her TV series. If you hadn’t watched the series, then this villainous turn would feel especially jarring. The whole “You’re a monster’/”No, I’m a mother” hysterical villain lady is tiresome. This is why I was making the Game of Thrones season 8 comparisons. It’s cool to see Wanda fully unleashed and how formidable she can be, but it’s at the expense of wiping out her character’s growth for a single-minded crazy momma. It’s reductive. If she can assume the life of her multiverse self, why not just do that? Also, what’s the great urgency? Wanda wants to kill America Chavez and absorb her power so she can jump through multiverses. Why can’t she just wait a matter of months to allow America to learn how best to control her powers? The movie never explains why the villain can’t just work with her magic MacGuffin rather than kill her. And then it all comes to Wanda realizing, “Oh no, what have I become?” and allowing herself to die as penance for the hundreds if not thousands she has killed over the multiverses. It’s all just a rather dispiriting development and questionable end for a character that I feel deserved better.

Walking away from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I feel like there’s a better movie buried under everything (everywhere all at once). This movie was originally supposed to come out before Spider-Man: No Way Home, and America Chavez was the original reason for Spider-Man’s multiverse dilemma, but it was delayed because of COVID. Raimi has gone on record that they figured out the plot of the movie while filming and conceived of the ending halfway through the film shoot. That’s not a great place to be for creativity, but then again, neither is being the twenty-eighth film in an ongoing interconnected chain of franchises. I won’t harp on that too much because plenty other MCU movies have excelled under such conditions and requirements, but every now and then one of Marvel’s movies just feels like a sacrificial offering to the greater altar of the MCU’s need to keep progressing with its multiple projects. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t a good Doctor Strange sequel, it isn’t a good multiverse movie, and it could have even used a little more madness, as those were my favorite moments, excluding the sharp villainous turn. I’d consider this film in the bottom tier of the MCU, among the likes of Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron, other similar altar offerings.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Every year, it seems that Netflix’s crown jewel for their big Oscar hopes ends up getting marvelous critical acclaim, and then when I finally watch it I am left disappointed. It happened in 2018 with Roma. It happened in 2019 with The Irishman. And it happened in 2020 with Mank. I haven’t disliked any of those movies, but I was unable to see the highly laudable merits as other critics. Now here comes their big Oscar play for 2021, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a Western that has been gracing the top of more critics lists than any other American film this year (I’ll be getting to you soon enough, Drive My Car). As I burned through awards movie after awards movie to assess, I held back from The Power of the Dog for a time. I just didn’t want to find that once again I was disappointed with the latest Netflix Oscar contender. I’m still chewing over my feelings with The Power of the Dog, which has a lot going on under the surface and a palpable tension that you’re unsure of how and when it will erupt. It’s also a movie that touches upon repression, toxic masculinity, manifest destiny, grooming, emotional and physical manipulation, and the danger of unstable men who are unable to process who they really are.

Set in 1925 Montana, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jessie Plemons) own and operate a cattle ranch. George marries a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and brings his new wife and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live at the ranch. Phil resents his new sister-in-law, looks down on her son, and torments both repeatedly. Rose sees Phil as an enemy, someone who will not stop until he forces her out, and his target becomes her son, Peter.

This is less a traditional Western in several respects and more a tight character study that happens to be set at the conclusion of a Western fantasy for America, transitioning to modernity. It goes against our preconceived notions of a Western, not in a deliberately deconstructive way like 1992’s brilliant Best Picture, Unforgiven, but more in providing contrary thematic details that often get squeezed out. I was expecting the movie to take place maybe during the 1870s or 1880s, but the fact that it’s taking place five years removed from the Great Depression offers different story opportunities and larger reflection. There’s a reason this story is told well after the halcyon days of the Old Wild West. The movie is about certain characters holding onto an exclusive past that has eclipsed them and others ready to move forward by shuttling over their past and the obstacles standing in the way of personal progress.

There are thematic layers expertly braided together that touch upon the larger question over what it means to be a man in society. Each of the primary male characters (Phil, George, Peter) is an outsider to some degree, someone who doesn’t neatly fit into what constitutes a conventional man of the times. George is soft, empathetic, meek yet in a position of power from his family’s status; Peter is rail-thin, academic, odd, effeminate at turns, a dandy presented for ridicule; Phil is the one who presents as a “man’s man,” a hard-driving, hard-drinking man of the land who imposes his will on others. However, deep down, Phil is hiding a key part of himself that would conflict with his society’s view of masculinity. Each man bounces around points of conflict and connection with one another, familial bonds fraying, and a slow-burning battle for supremacy escalating.

The movie could have also been charitably nick-named “Benedict Cumberbatch is a jerk to everyone,” as this is much of what Campion’s script, based upon the 1957 novel by Thomas Savage consists of. The movie is absent a primary perspective. We drift from person to person in the small-scale ensemble, elevating this next character and their views and worries and priorities. Phil could be deemed the primary protagonist and antagonist, especially the latter. He’s a mean man. Phil is a man who likes to make others uncomfortable, who needles them, and he takes great interest in targeting Rose, partly because he doesn’t like the influence she has on his only brother, and partly because he can get away with it. When he sets his sights on Peter, you don’t quite know what this hostile man will do to get his way. Will he manipulate Peter to turn him from his mother? Will he endanger Peter as a threat to Rose? Will he go further and possibly kill Peter? Or, as becomes more evident, does he see Peter in a very different light, a special kinship that had defined Phil’s own secretive past.

I suppose it’s a spoiler to go further so if you want to, dear reader, then go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. Phil reveres “Bronco Henry,” a deceased rancher that taught him many things when he was younger. The movie heavily, heavily implies that this long-departed older man had a romantic relationship with Phil when he was much younger, something the grown Phil cherishes, caressing himself in private with a scrap of fabric belonging to Henry. The lazy characterization would be, “Oh, Phil is homophobic because he’s really gay, and he’s angry because he cannot accept himself.” With Campion, Phil could be viewed as a victim too. He was likely groomed by an older man, and maybe that relationship was viewed by Phil as more romantic and consensual than it was, but it’s the lingering nostalgic memory of the intimate happiness that he holds onto, afraid to move on because of the danger of letting go and the danger of possibly reaching out, being vulnerable again. Yes, dear reader, this is more a gay cowboy movie than Brokeback Mountain (which, to be fair, were sheep herders). Savage himself was also gay. As Phil takes Peter under his wing, you don’t know whether this man is going to kill or kiss him, and the tension is ripe enough that either way it can ties you up into anxious knots.

The acting is extremely polished all around, with each performer having layers of subtext to shield their true intentions. Cumberbatch (Spider-Man: No Way Home) is a thorn in so many sides and it isn’t until much later that the veil begins to drop, ever so slightly, allowing you to finally see extra dimension with what appears to be a bully character for so long. He might just be too impenetrable for too long for some viewers to develop any empathy. Plemons (Jungle Cruise) and Dunst (Melancholia) are sweet together, and I enjoyed how each one leans upon the other for support. Rose is the butt of much of Phil’s torment and teasing, so we watch Dunst break down under the constant abuse of her berating brother-in-law. When her character sees a way to gain an upper hand, it becomes like a light in the darkness for her momentary relief. I felt heartbroken for Rose as she studied a piano tune for weeks to impress esteemed guests of her husband’s, only to succumb to her nerves and insist she couldn’t play because she didn’t think she could be good enough. Then to watch Phil cruelly needle her further about her disappointment by whistling that same tune is even worse. This is the best acting of Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) since he was vying with Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game) for every preteen lead in big studio features. There’s a deliberate standoffish quality to the character, to Peter’s way of viewing others. It’s like he’s part alien, studying the things that make people tick. Like Cumberbatch, there are multiple layers to this performance because his intentions are equally if not more guarded. You almost need to watch the movie a second time to better identify what Smith-McPhee is doing in scene after scene.

The Power of the Dog is a terrific looking and sounding movie. The photography is beautiful, the New Zealand landscapes are awe-inspiring, the production design is handsome, the musical score by Johnny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) is discordant strings that enhances the tension permeating through the movie. Campion hasn’t directed a movie in over ten years, and this is only her second movie since 2003’s misbegotten erotic thriller, In the Cut, starring an against-type Meg Ryan. It feels like she’s had no time away with how controlled and resonant her directing plays. I wish her script was less ambiguous to a fault; it errs somewhat I believe by holding out key revelations about Phil for too long, leaving us with the man being an unrepentant bully for too long. There are significant turns in the concluding minutes that will reorient your interpretation of the entire film, and I have every reason to believe that when I watch The Power of the Dog another time it will be even more impressive.

Congratulations, Netflix, on breaking your streak of disappointing me with your prized awards contenders. I’ve included many Netflix movies in my best lists, and worst lists, over the years, as that is the lot when you have such an enormous library in the prestige streaming arms race. The Power of the Dog is an intimate and occasionally even sensual Western that pushes its put-upon characters to their breaking point, and perhaps the audience, while rewarding the patient and observant viewer. There’s gnawing, uneasy tension that gets to be overwhelming, but the movie benefits from the unexpected destination for where that tension will lead. Will it be violence? Will it be passion? Will it be a crime of passion? The acting is great, the artistic quality of the movie is high, and each scene has much to unpack, allowing for further rewarding examination. I wish there was more of the last half hour when things better come into sharper focus, and I wish the movie was a little less ambiguous for so long, but this is one of the better films of 2021 and Campion’s best movie since 1993’s The Piano (I fully expect her to become the first female director nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar). The Power of the Dog is a lyrical, surprising drama, a sneaky character study, and proof that my Netflix overrated front-runner curse has been lifted (for now).

Nate’s Grade: A-

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

This is going to be a difficult review to write. It’s the third Spider-Man movie in the Tom Holland era, though his sixth Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) appearance as the character, that much can be said. The MCU has been teasing a universe of parallel universes for a while now, even famously in 2019’s Far From Home, the previous Spider-Man film, and which No Way Home opens seconds later to deal with its immediate aftermath. The scuttlebutt with this new Spider-Man movie is that it is the most Spider-Man in all senses, bringing past iterations from the original Tobey Maguire run (2002-2007) and the maligned Andrew Garfield reboot (2012-2014). We know villains from each non-MCU Spider-Man film are making special appearances, and there are expectations for plenty more special appearances, so by that notion, writing a film review about a movie built upon surprise inclusions and secret revelations can be daunting to even be readable without giving too much away. I’ll do my best, dear reader. Spider-Man: No Way Home is not the best Spider-Man movie, in the MCU or prior, but it’s a rollicking adventure that will play like catnip for fans of the series, all iterations, and has some of the strongest moments of any web-slinging blockbuster.

In the wake of Mysterio framing Spider-Man (Holland) and revealing Peter Parker’s real identity, life has not been kind to your friendly neighborhood Spidey. The public has turned on him and even his best friends are suffering the consequences of their personal relationship. It’s enough that Peter seeks out his old pal, the wizard Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), to cast a spell to erase the world’s memory of who Spider-Man really is. The magic spell, naturally, goes wrong, and villains of Spider-Man from other universes begin to appear. These larger-than-life characters are dangerous but also confused; this isn’t their universe, and this isn’t their Peter Parker. Doctor Strange is happy to send them all back to their primary universes, to correct the loose ends of the spell, but Peter doesn’t want to send them all to their fated deaths. He wonders if maybe they can be cured or reformed and if it’s too late to still do the right thing.

First things first, you need to know that this movie is going to play much, much better if you are familiar with, and especially if you’re a fan of, the previous Spider-Man movies. No Way Home almost feels like it was written by a fan who has been nurturing a desire to do right by all past Spider-Man films. This feels like someone who had assembled a list of unresolved issues from different Spider-Man movies for over twenty years and said, “Hey, could I write these characters another ending that can redeem them and provide better closure in a way that is meaningful?” Because of that, each new character that comes through has a definite jolt of fan excitement like an all-star reunion, especially for characters you never thought you would see again. Certainly, some characters have more meaning than others, but I was pleasantly surprised how well integrated and written so many of the villains come across. Returning screenwriters Erik Sommers and Chris McKenna have ret-conned and redeemed the various Spider-Man missteps of old and have given characters more attention and fitting resolution, which makes this a surprisingly emotionally deep Spider-Man in ways you weren’t expecting. There are character reunions and resolutions that I didn’t know I needed, and I was smiling and even battling back tears of my own at various points. If you’re a fan of the recent Holland run, then the movie will still play well, but if you’ve been with Spider-Man from his cinematic beginning (if you really want to feel old, the original Spider-Man teaser involved the World Trade Center) then this movie will feel like a nostalgic blanket to warm you all over.

I think it’s safe to discuss some of the villains that have been prominent in the advertisement and later trailers, but if you wish to skip any character details, then skip to the next paragraph. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the two biggest villains are the ones with the biggest screen time and most allowance at redemption. Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborne (Green Goblin) and Alfred Molina as Doctor Octavius (Doc Ock) are treasures. It’s so good to see them again in these roles and each actor is just as good as you recall from their time 15-plus years ago. I was worried that bringing Doc Ock back could spoil the redemptive turn he has at the end of 2004’s Spider-Man 2, sacrificing himself to save the day from his own dangerous experiment. Little did I know that the entire movie was going to seek redemptive arcs for a veritable Sinister Six-worth of Spider-Man villains. It becomes the backbone of the movie, and I was skeptical at first but the movie found ways to win me over with just about every character’s inclusion. Norman and Octavius are similar in that they are battling other sinister personas in their heads, and when the real versions of each man break through, it’s often in heartbreaking moments of existential confusion and sadness. This is a movie that has time to fit in Spider-Man memes as well as question the moral culpability. It’s fascinating that a huge Marvel movie is so concerned with providing glimpses of humanity and compassion to bad guys from movies that the general public didn’t even generally like.

This is the best acting of Holland’s Spider-Man run. He really gets put through the wringer about the consequences of trying to make the moral choice, both good and bad. His most emotional moments got me each time because of the investment in his character growth over six movies as well as the added investment in the supporting characters too. This is the most integrated and important both Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya) have been to the plot, and they have a platonic hug at the end that sent me into a tailspin of emotions for what it meant. The humor and natural camaraderie of the actors is still there, a hallmark of the MCU Spider-Man series. I laughed plenty, especially with certain characters deconstructing their parallels and connections (“Gotta watch where you fall,” a villainous understatement). However, this is the most emotional Spider-Man likely ever, and the actors all perform ably. I want to single out Marissa Tomei as Aunt May because she’s been undervalued in these movies until now. This is the biggest role Aunt May has played and she serves as the voice of morality to push Peter to do what he knows is right even in the face of outlandish adversity and personal cost.

No Way Home works better thematically than as a well-constructed plot. The solutions to the villain redemption are laughably convenient, and while it’s not as expressly magic as Doctor Strange’s spells, it’s pretty much the equivalent of technological magic. That’s fine, because it’s less the struggle of invention and more the choice that matters for each character. The mechanics of the ending also feel overly convenient and tidy (you could have just done this the whole time?). When Doctor Strange is chastising characters for hasty decision-making, it’s the movie calling attention to its own cheats. The movie splits so much of its time across multiple villains and drafting off of your old feelings. There are other narrative shortcuts taken and abbreviated, especially Strange’s involvement. He’s left out of much of the movie for the same reason Captain Marvel was left out of much of the final battle with Thanos in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame: he’s too powerful to have on the board. I’m not saying the screenwriters made the wrong choices on what to emphasize. The emotional beats of this movie hit strongly, and if they have to rely on a few cheats and nit-picky hand-waves to get there, then so be it.

From an action standpoint, I think this might rank last for me in the series. Returning director John Watts has never wowed me as an action director. He’s not bad at staging the big moments but he seems more present in zippy tone than in style on a big stage. The added wow factor of seeing the various characters assembled on screen will compensate for much of the action feeling contained to dank sound stages. I think this was done as a cautionary measure to keep the secrets from being leaked, but it also shortchanges the action possibility. There’s nothing in this movie, from a pure action standpoint, that rivals the Venice or London sequences in Far From Home. The movie utilizes portals, and it got my hopes up for clever action inventions, but it serves as more plot device than action complication. There have been some artistic sacrifices, narratively and visually, to accommodate the Spider-Man Movie All-Stars approach, and while I think the filmmakers have emphasized the correct parts, it does still feel like there are some nagging shortcomings to an overall experience that plays exuberantly.

Finding a comfortable medium between fan service and creative constriction, Spider-Man: No Way Home is not the best Spider-Man movie but at the same time it just might be. It serves as a salve to the rest of the franchise, five iterations across two different runs, and because of that level of attention and compassion, the past movies get a little bit better, with more added resolution, more character moments, and second chances to correct miscues and blunders. Who among us wouldn’t want another opportunity to correct our mistakes? While ostensibly setting up the troubles ahead for the MCU (the trailer for 2022’s Doctor Strange: The Madness of the Multiverse is the final post-credit scene), the movie feels entirely backward-looking, rewarding fans of the character and resolving to do better where other films had gone awry. Maybe (Disney)Fox could do something like this for the bad X-Men movies? I don’t know if the same punitive charges of being slavishly nostalgic will hit No Way Home like they’ve done for the new Ghostbusters and Star Wars. It’s definitely still accessible for newer fans but plays best to the people with the longest investment, but isn’t that every continuing movie series? No Way Home is a rewarding cinematic experience of many highs and fun surprises and cameos as well as a humane redemption for the sins of Spider-Man’s past. It’s not the best superhero movie but it might be the most joyous one yet.

Nate’s Grade: B+

1917 (2019)

We all know what the immediate appeal for 1917 is and that is its bravura gimmick of making the entire two hours appear as if it is one long, unbroken film take. Long tracking shots have famously been used in films before, like Goodfellas and Atonement, and entire movies have been filmed through the illusion of a single take, from Hitchcock’s Rope to Russian Ark to Best Picture-winner Birdman. The difference between those one-take movies and 1917 is that none of them were a war movie that takes place primarily outdoors in very real elements. The sheer technical audacity of the feat demands that it be see on the big screen when able. It’s like a cinematic magic trick, allowing you to sit in awe at the sheer ambition and technical wizardry of the filmmakers and continue muttering, “How did they do that?” When done right, it can reawaken that magical feel of watching something impressively new, but is there any more than a gimmick?

It’s 1917 and two ordinary British soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, a.k.a. “Tommen” from Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay), are tasked with a life-saving mission. A military unit is walking into a trap, and if they do not deliver this dire message in mere hours, hundreds of men will die, including Blake’s older brother. They have only hours before the fateful attack is launched and must traverse into enemy territory that may not be as deserted as they have been lead to believe.

Whatever else you think about 1917, it is worth watching simply to witness the awe-inspiring technical vision from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty). The sheer scope of this movie is overwhelming when it comes to the logistics of being able to keep the camera roaming, which will go from handheld to crane to swooping lines above. It feels alive with that vitality of theater, knowing that if something were to go wrong that everyone would just adjust and move onward. When you see someone tip-toeing along the edge of a bridge, that’s them doing so. When you watch someone diving for cover, it’s really happening, and Mendes wants you to know. It brings an interesting verité feel to something that must have been planned within an inch of its existence. But was it? Did the actors meet the exact same blocking marks every take? Were the clouds aligned just so each time? I’m willing to credit legendary cinematographer Roger Deakens (Blade Runner 2047) with extra plaudits not just for arranging all the logistics of the busy camerawork but for finding pleasing visual compositions on the spot, using what was available. He deserves all the awards because this movie is nothing but brilliant photography and production design. A segment where we run through the ruins of a French village at night, with German flares providing momentary bursts of visible light above, is astounding. I think about the meticulous precision of the camerawork, the timing of the lighting cues, the practice of the actors and story decision to run in darkness and hide for cover in light, the pursuers giving chase, and it just makes my head hurt from all the daunting coordination. It might be dismissively viewed as a WWII video game and the characters as the avatars we urge onward, and I don’t disagree. I found the entire enterprise to be deeply immersive, visceral, and thrilling in its stunning sense of verisimilitude.

However, I’ll admit, dear reader, that I was growing bored by the first ten minutes or so, and I even admit that this was in some part by design. Given its proximity to being in real time (the trek we are told should take 6 hours) it means early on there is a lot of walking. Before we venture out into No Man’s Land, it feels like we’re just watching people walk and walk and walk through the lengthy English trenches. It can become a bit repetitive and your mind may wander, but there is a rationale for this from Mendes and company. It communicates what the geography of battle and day-to-day life was like for the soldiers, to go from one supposedly safe section, snaking round and round to the front lines, noting the distance but also, in practical terms, how close life and death were from one another. It’s also a recognition of the reality of trench warfare and you can stop and think, “Wow, the production actually built this entire miles-long trench,” but then you can just as easily transition to, “Wow, people really dug in and built these structures back in 1912.” The long walk serves as the confirmation not just of a top-notch film production but also of the hardened reality of a soldier bogged down in a trench for months. The First Act is essentially them walking to the front line, crossing over into No Man’s Land, and approaching the German trench on the other side. On paper, that doesn’t sound like too much in the way of story events, but it’s our introduction as an audience into the life that these soldiers experienced. Each crater, each corpse strewn on the battlefield, it helps paint a larger picture of the unseen stories leading to this moment. It’s a very real equivalent of “show, don’t tell” storytelling, and the long walk better cements in our minds just how daunting this trial will be, especially since every step after the trench is fraught with danger.

I figured that 1917 was going to be more about its gimmick and that the characters would suffer under the weight of this setup, and it’s true that they could be sharper, but 1917 succeeds in ways that I found Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk lacking. By focusing primarily on two characters and hinging success or failure on them alone, the film does a better job of providing me a personal entry point into the larger conflict. I have someone I can follow from the start, and that’s not just because the camera is confined to their immediate orbit. About halfway through, the movie makes a turn that really ups the stakes as well as my emotional involvement in a way that I never felt during 2017’s Dunkirk, which felt too removed with its interchangeable, faceless characters. With Dunkirk, it was a race against time but this was muddled by its non-linear, time-hopping structure. It’s a race against time but you were given three different sets of time that would crash into one another. It was too clever to feel the urgency. With 1917, it’s streamlined to the essential (get to point A before X time) and the urgency is alive in every moment. Not only do our characters not know what they’ll discover past the German lines, if they deviate too long, they may well arrive too late to stop a doomed attack. I assumed our characters would persevere, but as the film carried on, and the setbacks mounted, I began to doubt. Would this be another Gallipoli scenario of pointless death at the behest of arrogance, stubbornness, and bad information? By the end I didn’t know and that gnawing uncertainty provided a tremendous spark of tension.

It can be episodic, it can feel more like a gimmick than a movie, but 1917 is a prime example of why we go to the movies. We go to be dazzled and transported through the magic and marvels of expert craftsmen and to throw ourselves into the complicated, messy, intriguing world of strangers that we get to cheer for, laugh with, and possibly cry over. The technical accomplishments will be heralded for years and studied long after. It’s a technical feat but, thankfully, the movie is more than merely its magic act. The human drama becomes personalized, universal, and engaging. There are several moments meant to breathe, including one gorgeous moment in hiding with a Frenchwoman and a baby that is beautiful in its cross-language connection on a human level. The suspense can be overwhelming and I was rocking back and forth whether or not characters would be caught, seen, or make it out alive, always remembering the stakes of failure. Watching 1917 is like holding your breath for two hours and then exhaling at long last upon the end credits. I feel that there are enough resonating elements that provide substance for the movie to stand on its own merits but it will forever be known for its long, coordinated feature-length tracking shot. Even if that is its lasting legacy, 1917 is still a thrilling and immersive achievement in filmmaking ambition.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Current War (2019)

The Current War has been on the shelf for two years and now finally getting a release, strangely subtitled “The Director’s Cut.” Can a movie that has never been released to the public, outside of some festival screenings, really declare its first impression a director’s cut? Aren’t these supposed to be different, and generally longer versions of the original edit? Regardless, the movie acts like a 19th century version of The Social Network with the battle over the nation’s electrical grid up for stakes between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). You may think Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) is a big player in this game, but you’d be mistaken as he’s more a glorified cameo. I appreciated how the history came alive under director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me, and Earl, and the Dying Girl) and his overwhelming sense of style. This is a period film that feels excitedly modern in its presentation, with lots of clever transitions, stylish camera angles, and wide angle photography to go along with a churning score that even reminded me of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ Oscar-winning music. The characterization of these Great Men of Industry also finds ways to humanize them, especially Westinghouse who shuffled his employees into his burgeoning and debt-ridden electrical gambit so he wouldn’t have to fire anyone. Edison’s portrayal is decidedly charitable, positioning him as a principled family man who rebuffed a shameless J.P. Morgan (a great movie bastard) and easy money for military contracts because he refused to participate in any endeavor that would take life. There’s an ironic subplot where Edison, forced into desperation, cooperates with New York state’s implementation of a new “more humane” way of executing prisoners, and pinning the deadly results on Westinghouse’s alternating electrical current. This is certainly not the Edison of litigious infamy. I enjoyed immersing myself in this older world where the men of science and vision were akin to magicians creating miracles that dazzle. Their competitive race is doomed to be a bit one-sided if you know the history of AC versus DC (it’s hard to compete when one option is both better and cheaper) but I was still entertained by their tit-for-tat and how each man responded to pressure and expectations. The screenplay by Michael Mitnick is judicious with its information and very accessible for a lay person. The acting is solid even if many side characters are glorified extras (Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Tuppence Middleton). The Current War has been getting some pretty dim reviews, with even dimmer puns, and I don’t quite follow why critics are turning out the lights on this movie (sorry). It might not have the stuff of greatness but it’s a perfectly enjoyable period piece with attention to character and a panache of style to liven up the dustiest of history.

Nate’s Grade: B

Mowgli (2018)

Sometimes second place might as well be last place in the film industry. Pity Andy Serkis and the years he spent making a live-action, mo-cap enhanced version of The Jungle Book only for Disney to scoop him years in advance and deliver a billion-dollar hit. It’s impossible not to compare the two and unfortunately Serkis’ passion project is found wanting in many areas. For starters, there’s far less Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), which is a shame. He’s really only in the film for very little. I think Cate Blanchett is miscast as the voice of the snake, Kaa, who acts like a grand keeper of the jungle’s history and future. I’m not sold on Serkis as Baloo, a grumpy paternal figure present from the beginning that trains the wolf pups so they can join the pack. The middle half-hour Mowgli spends in the company of man with a kindly poacher also feels like the movie is spinning its wheels. It keeps the rest of the jungle on hold. There are some rather dark asides that can be quite surprising, from wolf pups plummeting to their doom, bloody scars, cute severed heads to haunt your dreams, and three separate occasions where characters will watch the light vanish from a dying animal’s eye. It’s definitely a more brutish, cruel, and dangerous world, but at what greater expense? The characterization doesn’t add up to much. The character relationships are minimal. The CGI creatures and settings look unfinished. The whole enterprise feels rushed even though it’s been on the shelf for some time, which may be why the studio was eager to sell it to Netflix for a cool $90 million. You’ll watch Mowgli and nod, generally entertained, but questioning whether it’s 90-million worth.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Grinch (2018)

The second go at a twenty-first century feature-length Grinch movie is a thoroughly, spectacularly bland movie. This mediocre enterprise barely stretches to feature length at 86 minutes and it lacks the charm of the original Dr. Seuss cartoon. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the green recluse with his three-sizes-too-small heart set on stealing the Christmas celebration of others. That’s great casting, but why is he settling for his Doctor Strange-style American voice? The man has such a natural, rich, velvety voice. Another miscue is the fact that this Grinch isn’t really feared by the people of Whoville. He lives just outside of ton and isn’t really that mean. He’s less a villain and more just a grumpy sad guy who has to over explain everything for the audience to understand (“I thought stealing Christmas would make me feel better, but really I was running from myself…”). This movie is brightly colored and nicely animated but it’s strictly just for little kids. The lessons are pretty simplistic. The characters are mostly annoying, precocious, or mute. The humor is mostly slapstick. There is nothing to engage bigger thinkers. This Grinch movie actually made me start re-evaluating the 2000 Ron Howard version, which at least tried something and had an enjoyably hammy Jim Carrey performance with some creepy good makeup prosthetics, and I didn’t even like that movie. The new animated Grinch film is inoffensively lackluster. At best it’s a disposable 90 minutes to distract easily distractible children and give mom and dad time for a nap.

Nate’s Grade: C

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It’s hard to draw comparisons to the major commitment to long-form storytelling that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has dabbled with over the course of ten record-shattering years of success. I can think of movie franchises that have been popular over long periods of time, like James Bond, but rarely do they keep to continuity. It’s been 18 movies and ten years since the caddish Robert Downey Jr. first stole our hearts in the original Iron Man, and its stable of heroes and villains has grown exponentially. Looking at the poster for Avengers: Infinity War, it’s hard to believe there’s even enough space just for all of the actors’ names. Infinity War feels like a massive, culminating years-in-the-making film event and it reminded me most of Peter Jackson’s concluding Lord of the Rings chapter, Return of the King. After so long, we’re privy to several separate story threads finally being braided as one and several dispirit characters finally coming together. This is a blockbuster a full decade in the making and it tends to feel overloaded and burdened with the responsibility of being everything to everyone. It’s an epic, entertaining, and enjoyable movie, but Infinity War can also leave you hanging.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) has finally come to collect the six infinity stones stashed around the universe. With their power, he will be able to achieve his ultimate goal of wiping out half of all life in the universe. Standing in his murderous way is a divided Avengers squad, with Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) still on the outs with a wanted-at-large Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). One of the in-demand infinity stones resides in the head of the Vision (Paul Bettany), who is in hiding with his romantic partner, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). They know Thanos will be coming for Vision eventually. On the other side are the Guardians of the Galaxy who have a few personal scores to settle with Thanos, the adopted father of Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Elsewhere, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) strikes out looking for the key to defeating the big purple menace. Thanos’ loyal lieutenants attack Earth to gather the remaining infinity stones, drawing the attention and push-back of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland). The various heroes of Earth and space unite to eliminate the greatest threat the universe has ever known.

Avengers: Infinity War serves not as much a series of payoffs as it is climaxes, with climactic event right after another, and this time it’s for keeps (more on that below). There are moments that feel like major payoffs and moments that feel like shrug-worthy Last Jedi-style payoffs. Infinity War is the longest MCU movie yet at 149 minutes but it has no downtime. That’s because it has to find room for dozens of heroes across the cosmos. With the exception of three super heroes, everyone is in this movie, and I mean everyone. This is an overstuffed buffet of comic book spectacle, and whether it feels like overindulgence will be determined by the viewer’s prior investment with this cinematic universe. If this is your first trip to the MCU, I’d advise holding off until later. Any newcomer will be very lost. I’ve deduced the seven MCU movies that are the most essential to see to successfully comprehend the totality of the Infinity War dramatics, and they are Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. Naturally, being intimately familiar with the previous 18 movies will be best, but if you don’t have thirty hours to spare then please follow my seven-film lineup and you’ll be solid.

As far as the stakes, the MCU has been notoriously reluctant about killing off its characters, but Infinity War is completely different. I won’t spoil circumstances or names, of course, but the march of death happens shockingly early and carries on throughout. There are significant losses that will make fans equally gasp and cry. This is a summer blockbuster that leaves behind an impressive body count across the known universe and ends in a downbeat manner that will naturally trigger reflexive Empire Strikes Back comparisons. It’s hard to feel the full impact of the drastic decisions, and the grief over their losses because I know there is a Part Two coming summer 2019, and with that comes the almost certainty that several important events will be diminished or straight-out reversed. After all, in comics, nobody is ever really dead, though with movies the heroes have the nagging habit of aging. With that said, you better believe I was holding my breath during some standoffs, tearing up at some sudden goodbyes, and reflecting upon journeys shared.

This is very much Thanos’ movie, which was one of the bigger surprises for me. Beforehand, our exposure to the big purple guy has been relatively minor, a brief moment here or a cameo there during a post-credit scene. Considering Thanos is supposed to be the universe’s biggest bad, it makes sense to finally give him his due, and that is what Infinity War does. Thanos gets the most screen time of any character and is given an honest-to-God character arc. He’s a villain who goes on an actual emotional journey as he follows a path that he feels compelled to even as it tests him personally. He finally opens up as a character rather than some malevolent force that is oft referred to in apocalyptic terms. We get his back-story and motivation, which is less a romantic appeal to Death like in the comics and more a prevention of the apocalypse reminiscent of the Reapers in the Mass Effect series. Thanos sees himself as a necessary corrective force and not as a villain. He’s never portrayed in a maniacal, gleeful sense of wickedness. Instead he seems to carry the heaviness of his mission and looks at the Avengers and other heroes sympathetically. He understands their struggle and defiance. Having an actor the caliber of Brolin (Deadpool 2) is a necessity to make this character work and effectively sell the emotions. Thanos is the most significant addition to the MCU appearing the latest, so there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do, and Infinity War fleshes him out as a worthy foe.

As an action spectacle, however, Infinity War is good but not great. The action sequences are interesting enough but there’s nothing special and little development. There’s nothing that rivals the delirious nerdgasm of the airport battle in Civil War pitting hero-against-hero to dizzying degree. The characters are separated into units with their own goals leading to a final confrontation that feels more climactic conceptually than in execution. That’s because this is an Avengers film that falls into some of the trappings of the glut of super hero cinema, namely the army of faceless foot soldiers for easy slaughtering, the over exaggerated sense of scale of battle, the apocalyptic stakes that can feel a bit like a bell rung too many times, and even minor things like the lackluster supporting villains. Thanos’ team of lieutenants are all the same kind of sneering heavy with the exception of one, a sort of alien cleric heralding the honor of death from Thanos. Carrie Coon (HBO’s The Leftovers) is generally wasted providing the mo-cap for the Lady Lieutenant That Sounds Like a Band Fronted by Jared Leto, a.k.a. Proxima Midnight. There are far too many scenes where characters reluctantly strike a deal to give up an infinity stone if Thanos will spare the life of a beloved comrade. The film’s greatest point of entertainment isn’t with its action but the character dynamics. The fun is watching years-in-the-making character interactions and seeing the sparks fly. There’s more joy in watching Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch try and out smarm one another than with any CGI collision of a faceless army of monsters. There are so many characters that few are given fully defined arcs. Most are given beginnings and stopping places. Though the eventual sequel will have fewer characters needing to share precious screen time.

The standouts on screen are Hemsworth (12 Strong) carrying a large portion of the movie and not missing a beat of his well-honed comic rhythms from Ragnarok, Bettany (Solo) brings a sad soulfulness to Vision as a man who knows fate is likely unavoidable, and Dave Bautista (Blade Runner 2049) is perfectly deadpan as Drax and has the funniest lines in the movie followed closely by the exuberant Holland (Lost City of Z). To even say which characters deal with more complex emotions might be a spoiler in itself but there are several actors showing an emotive level unseen so far in the bustling MCU.

Avengers: Infinity War marks a significant concluding chapter for one of cinema’s most popular series, until at least the next movie possibly makes it feel less conclusive. I pity Marvel because expectations are going to be astronomical for this climactic showdown. There are so many characters, so many crossovers, and so much to still establish, like Thanos as a character more than a spooky force of annihilation, that it feels rather breathless even at nearly two-and-a-half hours. You may be feeling a rush of exhilaration on your way out or an equally compelling sense of exhaustion. Infinity War doesn’t have the imaginative highs of a Dcotor Strange, the funky personality and style of a Guardians of the Galaxy, the wonderfully thought-out structure of a Spider-Man: Homecoming, the adroit weirdness of a Thor: Ragnarok, or even the hero-against-hero catharsis of a Civil War (still my favorite). What it does have is a sense of long-gestating finality, of real stakes and dire consequences. It’s not all pervading doom and gloom; this is still a fun movie, buoyed by crackling character team-ups and interactions. While, Infinity War won’t be all things to all people, myself included, it will please many fans, casual and diehard alike.

Nate’s Grade: B

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

With the continued runaway success of the box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it becomes more and more preposterous just how strange and unique it can be. You would think a mega franchise this valuable would be more prone to playing it safe, hiring established visual stylists who can produce product. Instead, the MCU finds interesting creative voices that can succeed within their very big sandbox. Enter New Zealand actor and quirky director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), one of the most surprising directorial hires in a decade of blockbusters. The Thor movies are generally considered some of the weakest films in the MCU, so there’s already plenty of room for improvement. With Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best Thor movie and one of the funniest to date for the MCU. It’s finally a Thor movie that embraces its silly, campy, ridiculous world and finds space to cram in more eccentricity.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to his home world of Asgard to find it in great peril. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling in their father’s stead, and that’s not even the worst part. Thor’s heretofore-unannounced older sister Hera (Cate Blanchett) has been unleashed from her prison and is seeking the throne she feels is rightfully hers. She is the goddess of death and chafes at Asgard’s revisionist history, trying to paint over its history as conquerors for something kinder and gentler. Thor is banished to an outlying planet, Sakaar, that’s essentially a junkyard for the universe. He’s captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and sold to fight in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) arena. Thor is trained to fight in gladiatorial combat, and his opponent and reigning champion is none other than the Hulk a.k.a. Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) alter ego. Thor must break free, convince the Hulk for help, get off this planet, and save Asgard before it’s too late.

Waititi has acclimated himself extremely well in the large-scaled world of blockbuster filmmaking, and yet his signature quirky sense of style and humor are still evident throughout, making Ragnarok the best Thor film. Let’s face it, the Thor films are completely ridiculous and trying to treat them as anything but is wasted effort. These movies involve alien Norse gods traveling by rainbow bridges and even though they can traverse the cosmos in spaceships they still sling giant broad swords. The more the films embrace the inherent silliness of the series the better. Ragnarok is the Thor movie that gets all the serious stuff out of the way in the first act, tying up loose ends from 2013’s Dark World, checking in with Anthony Hopkins’ Odin and the requisite MCU cameo (a superfluous Doctor Strange), and then introducing Thor’s long-lost twisted sister. From Blanchett’s intro, the movie becomes what it was set out to be, a lavish and consistently funny buddy comedy. Gone are all the Earthly constraints from the prior two films. It’s all aliens from here on out. Thor has everything stripped from him, his hammer, his family, his hair, and becomes an underdog once again. It’s a surefire way to make a living god more relatable. Fighting from the ground up, Thor makes all sorts of new friends and enemies, and it’s this evolution into an ensemble comedy where Waititi’s film shines. There’s a jovial touch to the world building that extends from the visuals to the variety of odd characters. Thor has never been more entertaining as Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) is able to stop being so serious and embrace his underutilized comedic chops. The man has a stunning sense of comedic delivery and a dry wit that’s right at home for Waititi. Hemsworth and his daffy sense of humor have never been better in the MCU.

Even with the added comic refinery, Thor is still the most boring of the Avengers, so Ragnarok solves this by introducing a new bevy of side characters that steal the show. The wacky world of the Thor universe was always its best aspect, and each new film pushes the boundaries a little further out, revealing more weird and wild planets and creatures. It feels like a Star Wars where we spend our time with the weird, scuzzy part of the universe. Ragnarok pushes those boundaries the furthest yet and introduces an entire cadre of loveable supporting players that you want to spend more time with. Tessa Thompson has a wonderful and intimidating introduction as she swoops in on a spaceship, makes her badass claim of her prized bounty, and then trips and falls, as she is quite tipsy from drinking. She regains her literal footing and still seems a bit out of it, but the ensuring process she goes through to claim what is hers is thoroughly impressive. As a Valkyrie, this is one tough woman, and Thompson (Creed) has great fun playing bad. She really reminded me of a female Han Solo. Thompson has a wily screwball chemistry with Hemsworth, and both actors elevate the other with lively give-and-take. Thompson is a terrific new addition. She has an enticing, irascible appeal without overt sexualization that sometimes befalls the Marvel female sidekicks (Black Widow, Pepper Potts).

Another character you’ll fall in love with is Korg, a rock monster gladiator played in motion-capture and drolly voiced by director Waititi himself. My question: is it possible for a director to steal his own movie? This is a character that feels stripped from one of Waititi’s dry, absurdist comedies and placed into the MCU. Korg is a would-be revolutionary but really he’s a joke machine and just about every line is gold. By the end of the movie, I needed a Korg spin-off series to further explore this unusual character.

The requisite villains of the film definitely play their roles to full camp, enjoying every moment. Blanchett (Carol) is like a Gothic Joan Crawford, marching with a slinky step and a sneer. Her multi-antler helmet completes the operatic sweep of the character. You’ll forgive me for my above comment on recognizing female characters independent of their sexuality, but man oh man does Goth Blanchett make me happy (especially with her hair down). It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Hela though. Every time we cut back to her I found myself getting somewhat impatient. I wanted to return back to the weird and wild world Thor was on. Blanchett is entertaining but her character can’t help but feel a bit shoehorned in (“Hey, you had a long-lost sister, and oh by the way, she’s basically Death itself, and she’s coming by to retake everything, so have fun with that and sorry for the short notice”). Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) is left to his Goldblum devices and it’s everything you would want. His signature stuttering deadpan is just as potent in the MCU, and the film finds strange little asides for him to make him even more entertaining. Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) has a plum role as Hela’s second-in-command who doesn’t really want the job. They actually gave this guy a character arc. It’s simple, sure, but it was more than I was expecting.

Ragnarok is a swan dive into a stylized, candy-colored explosion of 80s album covers come alive. The visuals and action feel inspired as much from the art of Jack Kirby as they do the pages of Heavy Metal. The overwhelming feel is one of irresistible fun, something you lean back, soak up, and smile from ear to ear in between handfuls of popcorn. The final battle feels suitably climactic and revisits Led Zeppelin’s immortal “Immigrant Song” once the action peaks, coalescing into a crescendo of cool. The trinkly 80s synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh (The Lego Movie) is fantastic and helps to achieve an extra kitschy kick. This movie is just flat-out fun throughout. It finds fun things for the characters to do, like when Banner has to not Hulk out on an alien world filled with stressors to trigger such an occurrence. That sequence almost feels like the grown-up, polished version of Adam West desperately running around as TV’s Batman in need of trying to find a place to dispose of a lit bomb. There’s an archness to the action and character interactions that is playful without being obnoxiously glib. I also enjoyed a climax that involved more than just out-punching the villains. Some might even charitably read it as a commentary on the over reliance of apocalyptic grandeur.

Playing from behind because of its hero’s limitations, Thor: Ragnarok finally embraces the silliness of its franchise, opening up more comic channels and vastly improving its entertainment quotient. The weird word and its collection of odd and oddly compelling characters is the best feature, and though it takes Ragnarok a bit of time for house cleaning, it becomes a steadily amusing big-budget blockbuster that maintains a cracked and lively sense of humor. It’s allowed to be strange and silly and campy. Waititi’s imaginative voice is still very present throughout the film, pushing the movie into fun and funny directions while still delivering the sci-fi action spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Ragnarok isn’t as deep as Civil War, as perfectly structured as Homecoming, or as subversive and different as Guardians of the Galaxy, but with a droll creative mind like Waititi, it becomes about the best possible Thor movie it can be.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Doctor Strange (2016)

doctor-strange-comic-con-posterAfter eight years and over a dozen movies, the unstoppable box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems like it could successfully sell the public on any concept, no matter how undeniably bizarre. This is the same studio that made us weep over the death of a tree that said three words. At this point, I think I can argue that the MCU has a higher film-to-film consistent quality of excellence than Pixar, the other most trusted brand in cinema (Pixar’s creative/emotional highs are certainly higher but they’ve had their share of misses). Marvel has earned the benefit of the doubt. The common complaint is that their movies feel too formulaic and insubstantial. I would definitely argue against the latter and the former needs no real defense. Marvel has built an empire on a system that works because it delivers crowd-pleasing and character-oriented blockbusters that are packed with payoffs for fans and newcomers. The alternative, chiefly the dour bombast of the fledgling DC film universe, isn’t much more appealing, but then again I have been labeled a “Marvel shill” by those infuriated from my inconceivable pan of the very conceivably terrible Suicide Squad, so take my word with some skepticism. For any other brand, Doctor Strange could be too weird. With the MCU, it’s another comforting sign they really know what they’re doing.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant New York neurosurgeon who loses full control over his hands after a horrible car accident. He travels to Nepal to seek out holistic remedies to aid his recovery and instead finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic. She takes a liking to Strange and invites him into their temple to train as a pupil of powerful sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong). Former sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has gone rogue and believes the only way to survive the oncoming cosmic giant Dormammu is to join him. Doctor Strange must summon all the skills of multiple dimensions in order to save the day.

doctor-strange-movie-tilda-swinton-benedict-cumberbatchDoctor Strange is at its core an origin tale and one that feels somewhat familiar at least for its first half. It’s likely not an accident that Stephen Strange bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvel’s other egotistical, arrogant charmer, Mr. Tony Stark. He’s a man who has to be humbled and learn the error of his ways and his outsized hubris, which makes for an effective character arc to structure an introductory movie around. It also makes fine work of Cumberbatch’s otherworldly sense of haughty superiority (I can’t wait to watch future Strange and Stark banter). The first half is essentially Training Montage: The Movie. Strange learns about the ancient mystic arts and, more importantly, super powers. The movie doesn’t follow Thor’s lead and argue that magic is another form of science. It declares magic as its own thing. Strange learns how to open portals, how to shift reality, how to astral project, and even how to stop time. Each new power is given proper attention and the learning curve adjusts as needed, allowing an audience to process the various rules and dramatic stakes. It’s a structurally smart assembly of mini-goals to keep an audience secure in what otherwise could be overwhelming for its New Age mumbo jumbo.

After the origin heavy lifting is taken care of that’s when Doctor Strange becomes everything I could hope for, namely a highly imaginative action movie with a breakneck pace and a boundless sense of imagination. This movie feels kinetically alive and unpredictable in ways that few Marvel movies even approach. Once Strange and Kaecilius meet at the halfway mark it becomes a gallop to the finish line with one highly entertaining action set piece after another, and even better they are wildly different. We don’t have battles about running and firing weapons or just punching bad guys extra hard; instead, it’s reality itself that bends to the will of the fighters. Characters walk on walls, shift the state of architecture, create teleportation portals to hop in and out of, shift the entire gravity of the world to force people away from said portals, and turn New York City into a kaleidoscopic playground. There’s an extended chase scene that literally feels like a series of M. C. Escher paintings come to starling life. The sequence is eye-popping in the best way and, shocking enough, it’s not even the climax of the movie. There are so many fun possibilities for crazy action sequences. There are other sequences that stand out, such as an out-of-body fight between two warring astral projection foes. The real climax of the movie is something I’ve never seen before, a battle that takes place as time resets. The smoldering ruins of a cataclysm are put together brick-by-brick and characters dodge the debris as it rapidly reforms. It’s visually thrilling to watch but it’s also a clever sequence because there are continuous opportunities for danger and in many ways that your brain cannot naturally suspect, like when a wall reforms and traps someone within. Whatever your feeling on the general MCU and its blockbuster formula calibrations, Doctor Strange is a great leap into something different, momentously exhilarating, and inventive.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) was an intriguing choice considering his background in supernatural horror, but, as should be obvious, the MCU overlords score again with their foresight and risk-taking. Derrickson’s visual influences hew much closer to Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski Siblings than the greatest hits of the MCU, and that’s exactly what this world needed to stand out on its own. I cannot overstate just how enjoyable the last hour of the movie can be, though this isn’t meant as a backhanded slight against that first half. The action-packed hour only works because of the setup from before and laying a careful foundation for the characters, their dynamics, and the rules of this trippy universe that bends conventional physics. All the careful world-building and training montages set up the sprint through a fireworks factory of fun, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time, eagerly anticipating the next detour into crazy.

I’m even going to impart you, dear reader, with some advice I haven’t given since 2013: if possible, see this movie in 3D. The hypnotic visuals and elusively shifting reality demand to be seen with the added help of the third dimension. The movie will still obviously work in a non-3D format but why deny yourself the full impact of these incredible visual experiences? New York City contorting is worth the extra few bucks alone.

doctor-strange-spell-cumberbatchThe acting is another highlight for such an enjoyable movie. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) easily makes for a terrific lead actor, someone who can bring a sense of gravitas or dry sarcasm when called upon. His sense of comedy is underrated and this Sorcery Supreme gets his fair share of punctuating the weird and wild with a perfectly delivered joke. A bit with a sentient cape allows for great physical comedy. His American accent is also much improved from earlier far spottier efforts in 2013’s August: Osage County and 2015’s Black Mass, which featured perhaps the worst “Baustun” accent in recent memory. Cumberbatch is the charming smartass, the know-it-all who realizes how much he still has yet to learn, and his final showdown with the Big Bad Evil sheds large-scale disaster for something much more personal (no giant portal in the sky or faceless army of monsters/aliens, hooray!). His character arc of learning that it’s not about himself culminates in a brilliantly conceived sequence that satisfies. The other standout is Swinton (Snowpiercer) who once again melds with her character, who happens to be a mysterious Celtic mystic who may not even be human. The early half is instantly elevated when Swinton is on screen. She presents a matter-of-fact sense of the preposterous that is downright serene. It’s also a role that is more than just a requisite mentor as The Ancient One has some secrets that will be revealed. I was also genuinely pleased with how much screen time Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Rogue One) gets for his villain, who has a wicked deadpan. I pity Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) who plays the underwritten love interest role we’ve seen similar to Natalie Portman prior performances. She at least gets a few good scenes before being forgotten.

With each additional entry into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fan in me gets to reexamine and realign the pecking order of quality. In my own subjective rankings I would say that Doctor Strange is just below the top tier of the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, Iron Man) and on par with Winter Soldier. This is a highly enjoyable and highly imaginative action movie teeming with eye-popping visuals. Many of the visual set pieces are stunning and demand to be witnessed on the largest screen possible. The movie never loses its sense of fun and wonder while still respecting the dramatic stakes of the cataclysmic events, and when it goes big it makes it matter. I have no previous attachment to this character and Doctor Strange was just about everything I wanted the film to be and then some. It’s another sign that Marvel can take any property and find the formula to make it a satisfying smash. I enjoyed Doctor Strange enough that I want to see it again, and this time even bigger to better soak up the strange.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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