Detroit(8/4/2017)

Kathryn Bigelow has had a kind of weird career trajectory, one that seems remarkably different than most.  She spent decades making somewhat interesting but not overly respectable Hollywood action movies like Point Break only to then suddenly turn into a respected auteur and chronicler of real world events almost overnight in 2009 after making her Iraq War film The Hurt Locker.  I closest thing to an analogues career turnaround I can think of is Curtis Hanson going from making trash like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle to making Oscar nominated fare like L.A. Confidential, but even after he made his transition into respectablitiy he wasn’t seen as an auteur so much as a standard journeyman who just so happened to have better material to work with.  The crazy thing is that, for me at least, this second phase of her career has its own set of unique problems, many of them rooted in the sensibilities of her screenwriter of choice Mark Boal.  I thought The Hurt Locker was well staged and interesting to look at, but its high episodic nature felt limiting and that the overall arc only did so much for me.  Zero Dark Thirty also felt overly procedural and I was frustrated by its inability of really make a statement.  They’re movies written by a journalist and you can tell, their determination to just “tell the facts” ultimately just came off as kind of empty and timid.  But those movies certainly looked great and had a lot of passion behind them and I’ve been waiting for this stage two Bigelow to break out and finally make a movie that was really a slam dunk for me and her latest film Detroit certainly looked like another great opportunity for that.

Detroit begins with a slightly awkward animated display explaining the Great Migration North to those who are unaware and transitions into a recreation of the ill-fated 1967 raid on an unlicensed bar in a black neighborhood in Detroit and how the anger over this action would snowball into a full scale riot.  From there the film begins to explain the lead up to the shameful “Algiers Motel incident” which would leave three black men dead and several other people beaten and terrorized.  This reenactment begins when members of a Motown style vocal group called “The Dramatics” including singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and manager Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore) take refuge from the chaos outside by paying to spend the night at a motel called the Algiers.  This seems to be going well until another person at the hotel named Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) acts on an ill-fated impulse to shoot a harmless starter pistol in the direction of some police and national guardsmen stationed nearby provoking them and a local security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) to rush into the hotel and round-up everyone they find.  When the plainly racist police ringleaders Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O’Toole), and Demens (Jack Reynor) see two white women (played by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever) among the African Americans they become filled with range, line everyone up against the wall and start threatening bloody retribution until someone confesses to where the gun that took those shots is.

Detroit ends with a very carefully worded title card which says something along the lines of “because the events of that night were never fully determined in court, this has been reconstructed based on witness recollections…” and the film has also changed the names of the officers involved possibly out of fear of litigation.  I’ve done some reading into the facts of this incident and as best as I can tell the movie is pretty accurate in its condemnation of these officers’ actions and of the broad strokes of what happened that night and that most of the liberties that it does take seem reasonable.  However, I do think it makes a couple of liberties that come back to bite them from a storytelling perspective.  Firstly, there is a lot of controversy about the initial shots that attracted the police to the Algiers.  It’s not clear exactly where these shots came from or if anyone in the hotel knew anything about it as a gun was never recovered and witness statements are contradictory.  The movie, however, decides to simply pick a side and show Cooper taking the shots with the starter pistol.  This is a problem in part because it begs a rather simple question: why didn’t the people the police were torturing simply explain what happened?  The man responsible was dead and the pistol he used (wherever it ended up) would seem to do nothing but back up their story, why not just spill the beans rather than endure this torture?  The movie never really explains this.  Secondly, the movie is awfully wishy washy about Melvin Dismukes’ role in all of this.  The role of the real Dismukes in the crime is murky and the movie doesn’t really seem to know what to do with him.  He isn’t depicted as a willing participant in the torture but he also does fuck all to try and stop it.  He’s just sort of there and the movie seems oddly non-judgmental about his inaction.  That the real Dismukes is alive and seemingly more vocal about the whole thing than the other participants may have had something to do with this.

However close Bigelow and Boal came to the exact truth, there’s little questioning that they’ve constructed a very passionate re-enactment but I do wonder if they perhaps errored in choosing such an extreme example of police brutality to center their film around.  Earlier in the film there’s another police shooting in which a looter is shot in the back while running away from one of the cops.  That incident would seem to be a bit closer to the kind of police shooting that has been popping up in the news as of late.  The prolonged terror in the Algiers Motel on the other hand feels perhaps more like something out of the Stanford Prison Experiment than something out of Ferguson, Missouri.  The movie does milk the suspense of the situation but given the subject matter you aren’t terribly inclined to enjoy it like you would a horror movie, though you do perhaps wonder what the film would be like if it had dropped the docudrama trappings, taken a more subjective perspective, and really let itself play out like some kind of realistic torture porn.

I’m not sure that the kind of people who make a habit of defending the Darren Wilsons and Jeronimo Yanezes of the world are going to see a whole lot of themselves in this story.  Firstly, the story is located in a past in which racist cops are a lot less subtle in their animosity, and the prolonged terror seen in the story is not exactly in line with the split second shootings that have sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.  Those who claim that these shootings are the result of certain “bad apples” rather than inherent biases in police forces will also find their position somewhat supported by the film as the cops doing the killing seems to be really over the line evil while other cops including their commanding officer are (rightfully) horrified when they discover what happened and while they do make some clear mistakes they don’t seem to be going out of their way to cover up the crime either.  What’s perhaps more familiar is the film’s ending (which shouldn’t be a spoiler for anyone who knows anything about the history of police violence in America) where we see an all-white jury do what all white juries do.

When Zero Dark Thirty came out I criticized it for being “too soon.”  Not in the sense that they were tapping on a wound that was too raw, rather that it was a film that was rushed into production before anyone had any real perspective on the event they were depicting and didn’t have a coherent statement to make about it.  Oddly enough I feel like in the race to be topical this movie was actually a little too late.  In the 90s or in the 2000s we could have used a reminder like this that the police aren’t always on your side and need to be kept in check sometimes, but I don’t think too many people who aren’t unreachably stubborn are going to be oblivious to that in 2017.  Detroit is certainly a well-made movie, and one that can spark at least some food for thought, but there are few real insights into what drove these cops to behave in such an extreme manner and it doesn’t offer a whole lot of advice as to how to prevent cops from behaving in such a way in the future.  It’s not a movie that will surprise its audience and it’s not a movie that will serve as much of an inspirational rally cry to fight against the forces of intolerance.  Instead we’re just given this grim two hour experience about how awful it is to be black in America when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we do need movies like that sometimes but I don’t know that we needed this one.

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Dunkirk(7/22/2017)

Christopher Nolan.  That has become one of the most strangely controversial names in certain film circles.   In many ways he’s the guy who’s been doing everything we’ve been asking our Hollywood blockbuster filmmakers to do: he doesn’t abuse CGI, he takes his craft seriously, and he makes original self-contained stories (at least when he’s not making Batman movies).  This has led Nolan to be greatly praised and has given him a very loyal fanbase but as with most nice things there’s also been something of a backlash to him.  There are a lot of people who resent Nolan’s role as Hollywood’s savior and they’ve come to lash out at his (admittedly sometimes hyperbolic) fans.  I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit on the internet pushing back against that backlash as a defender of Nolan, but at the same time I’m not a delusional stan for the guy.  I don’t necessarily think The Prestige is quite as good as some people say it is and I outright disliked his last movie Interstellar.  I was also skeptical about his latest project, Dunkirk, when I first heard about it and when early trailers were released.  It’s not that there was anything about the project that looked “bad” per se, it’s just, in the nearly twenty years since Saving Private Ryan came out the World War II battle film has gotten pretty un-noteworthy and I hadn’t gotten much indication that Nolan was really bringing something terribly special to this one.  I mean, I was still had every intention of being there on day one, but I had my doubts.

In Nolan’s film the battle is divided into three different theaters each with slightly different casts of characters which intersect occasionally.  The first is labeled “The Mole” and mostly follows a couple of rank and file enlisted men stuck on the beach named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) who are trying to get off of the beach by various means and we also get to meet a couple of officers commanding the evacuation named Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who have certain insights into what’s going on which the desperate men on the beach don’t.  The second theater, labeled “The Sea,” is on board one of the civilian vessels that famously set out to rescue some of the men on the beach.  This one captained by a guy named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who is accompanied by his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) and before they reach France they will need to contend with their first rescue, a soldier found on a wrecked boat (Cillian Murphy) who has been left shell-shocked by his experiences in Dunkirk.  Finally in the third theater we follow a pair of fighter pilots named Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) who have been sent to protect the men on the beach and the evacuating boats from the Luftwaffe.

One thing I neglected to mention from that description is that, while each of these three stories play out in a linear fashion they aren’t meant to be happening simultaneously and they don’t play out over the same length of time.  We are told through title cards that the beach sequences are set over the course of a week, the “sea” sequences are set over the course of a day, and the “air” sequences are set over the course of a single hour. Occasionally these stories intersect; for example at one point a plane goes down in the “air” segment and then the pilot is rescued later in the movie by the boat in the “sea” segment when that timeline catches up.  That sounds more confusing on paper than it is in the film and when watching it I wouldn’t recommend you spend too much brainpower trying to piece it all together as it really isn’t essential to enjoying the movie.   In fact, I feel like whatever confusion that this format does cause actually kind of improves the movie in a roundabout way because it sort of places you in the mind of these characters that have been thrown into this confusing and chaotic situation.

Dunkirk is a film that is more experiential than narrative in its nature.  One could perhaps liken it to an extended version of the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan in its intensity but it lacks that film’s graphic violence and really doesn’t focus on actual combat at all really.  We rarely actually see German soldiers in the movie outside of the aerial dogfights, but there presence and the terror they elicit is omnipresent.  If asked to liken it to another war movie I might actually point to the 2001 film Black Hawk Down, which also looked at a number of soldiers trying to live through a chaotic military situation that went wrong in a major way.  But really I’d more easily liken it to something like United 93 or Gravity which really just place you into a situation and have you just watch as people try to get through it.  There isn’t even much dialogue in the movie, so people who’ve criticized Nolan for his exposition in the past should see this as an improvement but that’s not to say that the film is a non-stop action scene as there are some quieter moments.  The scenes with Mark Rylance on the boat aren’t entirely action packed and these sections gain a lot of gravitas from Rylance’s quiet strength and there are also moments of relative calm on the beach, but even when things aren’t actively popping off in these segments there’s still a constant threat and no one ever fully feels safe.  The section that is pretty much nonstop action are the aerial sequences, which are some of the most intense World War II dogfights I’ve seen.  When actual combat with the Nazi fighter pilots is occurring Nolan often opts to focus in on the inside of the cockpit and it can be very suspenseful to watch as Hardy lines enemy planes up in his sights and he prepares to shoot.

Now let’s talk about the presentation options.  Christopher Nolan has been perhaps the most outspoken advocate for shooting and presenting movies on film rather than digitally and has made it known that the ideal format to watch the movie in is IMAX 70mm, which is the format I watched it in.  In the past I’ve tended to avoid IMAX, in part because the only true IMAX theater (as opposed to the “lie-MAX” theaters that you can find in multiplexes) in my area is at this zoo that’s kind of a pain to get to and the smell from the zoo kind of carries over to it.  I’ve also resisted the IMAX presentation for Nolan’s previous movies because none of them have ever been fully shot in IMAX because of both the costs involved and the fact that IMAX cameras are big and unwieldly, and have instead opted to be primarily shot on standard 35mm and broaden out during certain action scenes resulting in aspect ratio changes throughout.  That’s always rubbed me the wrong way.  I feel like a movie’s framing should be consistent unless there’s some artistic reason for the frame to be changing and to have it just arbitrarily re-frame itself simply because one scene is more expensive than another seems problematic to me.  Dunkirk is a little different than some of Nolan’s other films in that the IMAX is now the primary format and conventional 70mm shots are the exception but there are more non-IMAX shots than I expected and their insertion is noticeable both in terms of aspect ratio shifts and the noticeable uptick in film grain during these sections and it was a bit jarring to me.

There are of course upsides to the IMAX presentation though.  The screen is obviously huge and the clarity that the 70mm film provides is kind of amazing.  There’s also something kind of interesting about seeing a modern blockbuster of this size and scope which is essentially being presented in the old Academy ratio and on a screen that’s actually set up to accommodate it (as opposed to the smaller movies of today in that ratio which look even tinier when presented on multiplex screens).  This is especially impactful in the airplane sequences, which are really immersive and use the full height of the screen to really give you a sense of the space between these airplanes.  Interestingly enough I almost found the extra oomph of the IMAX sound system to be as impactful as the giant screen.  There are moments in the movie where shots suddenly ring out and really shock you with their intensity.  A lot of people will tell you that IMAX is the “only” way to see this movie, and while that is a worthwhile experience I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it in a regular theater either, in fact I’m thinking about seeing it again in a more conventional setting (one that doesn’t smell a bit like animal shit) just to see for sure how it plays out in that format.

Really what stands out to me most about the film isn’t its technical acumen but the emotion it leaves you with.  Though I’m sure the movie has been in production for longer, I think Christopher Nolan may have inadvertently made the perfect movie for the mood of (non-deplorable) people in the wake of Brexit and the Donald Trump election.  The Dunkirk evacuation was after all less of a victory than it was a loss mitigation.  It was a save that kept a defeat from being a total decimation, and the soldiers who lived through it knew this and didn’t have the benefit of knowing that years later the world would rally to defeat fascism.  The film captures that feeling of realizing you’ve been utterly defeated while still being left with a desire to regroup and fight back.  That’s a feeling that a lot of people were left with when they heard the bad news on those election days and carry with them into the “resistance.”  But you don’t need to be building connections to modern politics to see value in Dunkirk.  On a simply visceral level it’s a very exciting movie and it leaves you with some interesting glimpses into what people do in a crisis whether they rise to the occasion or crumble under pressure and makes both of these reactions seem organic and believable but also understandable.

Fences(12/26/2016)

12-26-2016Fences

August Wilson was likely one of the most unanimously revered playwrights of the second half of the twentieth century and he also lived in my home state for about ten years, a fact that was more than enough for the local English teachers to adopt him as a hometown hero despite the fact that every one of his plays was set elsewhere.  As such I’m somewhat familiar with his work, but for whatever reason I was never assigned to read his most famous work “Fences,” perhaps because those English teachers all wanted to explore the deep cuts rather than the play that everyone would theoretically find without their help.  “Fences” was often viewed as being sort of a black response to “Death of a Salesman” which makes some sense structurally and thematically even if it is a little reductive.  It was something of a sensation when premiered on Broadway in the late eighties it won the Pulitzer, the Tony, and also won a Tony for its original star James Earl Jones.  Needless to say this is material that has largely been canonized and is not to be adapted lightly.  The play was however successfully revived in 2010 with a cast which included Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and now that revival has been adapted into a feature film with Washington himself directing.

The film is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh during the 1950s and focuses on an average working class African American family called the Maxsons.  The patriarch of the family, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) has been working as a garbage man for decades and has raised a teenage son named Cory (Jovan Adepo) along with his wife Rose (Viola Davis).  As the film begins things are looking fairly decent for the family; Troy is lobbying to get a promotion that has historically not been available to African Americans, Cory is proving to be a talented football player, and the family is soon going to have a nice picket fence to spruce up their home.  However there are cracks in this nice veneer that will soon threaten to implode this tight family dynamic and they first show themselves when it’s revealed that Cory has put his job at a corner store on hold so that he can attend football practice, a move that would seem irresponsible until you realize that his skill is such that he’s already attracted the attention of a college scout and could get a scholarship from this skill.  Troy, played Negro League baseball in his youth and experienced the frustration of having never advanced beyond that because of his race and as such doesn’t see that as any kind of a valid hope for his son’s future and stubbornly refuses to allow the son to continue this pursuit.

Given that this play has basically entered the cannon of American literature at this point it almost feels presumptuous to weigh in on any of this material in and of itself, but I do have a few reservations.  The biggest is that I feel like the conflict that the play builds between the father and the son all through the first act sort of seems to be sort of pushed to the wayside in the second half in place of a different conflict with his wife which I will not reveal.  That second conflict is of course interesting as well but I would have liked to have seen how that tension over the son’s potential football career would have played out if the focus had stayed there.  I also maybe could have lived without a sub-plot involving Troy’s brain damaged brother and I’ve also never been particularly fond of August Wilson’s occasional dabbling in magical realism as he does in the epilog here.  Those quibbles having been aired, it is clear from this movie that this play does live up to its reputation and is clearly a very poignant character study about a flawed man trying to live up to the pressures and expectations of being a patriarch.

Of course with a film like this the question is really less a matter of how good the material is so much as how good the adaptation was, and the answer to that almost entirely depends on how you feel about stage plays being turned into films with minimal attempt to conceal the theatrical origins of the text.  The movie is certainly doing nothing to hide the fact that it’s based on a play.  A few scenes certainly appear to have been relocated to other locations but most of the action takes place in the back yard of the family’s house and the dialogue certainly leans more towards long speeches than any movie written directly for the screen is likely to indulge in.  Of course the film has the benefit of something that the stagings of the play at your local repertory theater company don’t have: it has a world class cast anchored by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who are both operating at the height of their abilities.  Washing ton in particular is impressive here, albeit in a very certain kind of theatrical way.  My one real reference point for this character is a Youtube video I found with a three-some minute clip of James Earl Jones doing the play’s signature “why don’t you like me” scene.  Judging a Tony winning performance by a short clip like that is pretty stupid but what I noticed was that Jones’ take on the character seemed a lot more stern and withdrawn into himself.  Washington by contrast seems to be playing the character a bit looser and lets you see a bit more of the character’s roguish past.

If there’s any reservations I have about Washington’s performance it’s that it doesn’t have a ton of internal range.  Washington starts at about a 9 on the intensity range, moves to a 10 frequently, and occasionally pushes into an 11, but never goes much below a 9.  Of course the material invites this and he probably shouldn’t have played it any other way, but it is not the kind of actively naturalistic acting that most modern filmmaking trades in.  That can kind of be said about most of the movie as it is unapologetic in the fact that it’s speaking the language of theater rather than the language of cinema and one’s enjoyment of the movie is going to mostly be rooted in how one feels about that.  Personally I think that does kind of diminish the movie, at least when you’re directly comparing it within the larger world of cinematic accomplish, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have a lot of value for what it’s trying to be.  I’m not someone who gets out to the theater very often for a variety of reasons and I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people out there like me in this regard.  I’m also not inclined to read plays like books and don’t have much of an interest in seeing filmed plays through Fathom events and the like.  As such these stage-to-screen adaptations are often my only real way to experience great works of theater like this.  So, for a play like “Fences” to be brought to the screen competently like this and with a cast like this is a pretty good thing any way you cut it.

4

Elle(12/25/2016)

12-25-2016Elle

During the 2010s I started a funny little personal movie-going tradition: making sure to go to a very decidedly non-yuletide movie on Christmas day.  Christmas has of course always been a big movie going day for me (I don’t need to travel for holidays and my family never makes a big deal about it anyway) and somehow Hollywood has consistently managed to supply me with movies to see on the day that are either downright perverse or at the very least contrary to the usual Christmas fare.  Last year my Christmas movie of choice was The Hateful Eight, and previous winners of the honor include Mr. Turner, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and True Grit.  This year I may have outdone myself, in part Hollywood was a little stingy about their releases this year (although Silence would have been an ideal choice had Paramount not decided to platform it slowly), so I instead I went to the arthouse to see noted provocateur Paul Verhoven’s French language rape-revenge film Elle which if nothing else can definitely be said to be pretty far removed from what most people would consider ideal holiday entertainment.

The film focuses on Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), a divorced middle-aged woman who runs a video game development studio in Paris.  In the very first scene of the film a masked man breaks into her hope beats and rapes Michèle in the middle of the day.  That scene is shocking but perhaps not as shocking as the reaction she seems to have to the incident, which is to say she seems oddly undisturbed by it.  She doesn’t go to the police and dismisses the concept of doing so, not out of trauma but because she says it’s “not worth the trouble.”  This isn’t to say she invited the attack or that she is completely undisturbed by it, but the burning anger and trauma you expect doesn’t exactly emerge.  Meanwhile she continues through her daily routines while trying to figure out who her attacker was and prepare for a potential second attack.

The attack at the beginning of the film is not representative of the most common forms of sexual abuse, and the film makes it pretty clear over the course of its runtime that Michèle is not a typical person and her reaction to the attack is not meant to be typical either.  The movie is not really in dialog with the various social and political conversations about rape that have been occurring recently and is really meant to be more of a wild character study.  Michèle is indeed the most interesting aspect of the film.  She’s a character who, attack or no attack, is characterized by a sort of sarcastic remove from her surroundings born of previous traumatic experiences.  She has minimal respect for most of the people in her life from her silly bourgeois friends, to her immature and disrespectful co-workers, to her wacky mother, to her dimwitted son, to his clearly unstable pregnant fiancé.  She’s not exactly wrong in her assessment of any of these people, and yet you get the impression that even if she surrounded herself by a higher caliber of companions that they too would prove unworthy of her high standards.  One could imagine a version of the movie not involving rape which could have a nice bitter little dramedy about a badass chick who manages to rise above the lesser fools bringing her down, and in some way that is what the finished film ended up being but the whole rape thing makes all of this a little harder to comfortably pull off.

This multiplicity of side characters is actually one of the film’s problems.  There are a lot of mediocre white Frenchmen in this woman’s life, perhaps to provide the film with some suspects for who this masked rapist might have been.  It’s one thing to believe that this one woman would be a strange person with a strange background but it’s a little harder to understand why so many of the other people seem to also be so strange.  It could perhaps be said that the film takes place in a sort of heightened world in general but it does get to the point where characters start behaving in ways that are just too strange to connect to and that is especially true of the film’s third act where Michèle’s rapist is revealed and she begins to deal with him in ways that are reminiscent of Liliana Cavani similarly provocative The Night Porter, a classic of provocative cinema which itself left me a little bewildered with its characters’ unusual behavior.  Human reactions to trauma are of course complex, but I wonder if they’re ever really quite as complex as authors and filmmakers like to imagine them being, especially when they’re intentionally trying to dream up wacky scenarios like this.

Elle was directed by Paul Verhoven, a filmmaker previously known for satiric action movies like Robocop as well as sexually charged Hollywood thrillers like Basic Instinct and Showgirls.  He hasn’t had a ton of luck in the 21st Century as he’s a little too Hollywood for Europe and too adventurous for modern Hollywood.  Elle certainly shows some elements of his usual style (including a perverse little acting decision by a cat), but I’m not sure this movie was really the best use of his particular set of skills.  Verhoven is more of a satirist than a provocateur; he’s more interested in finding ways to make his wacky sensibility palatable to the viewer in inventive ways than he is in shoving outrageousness into the viewer’s face.  I can only imagine what something like this would have looked like in the hands of someone like Lars Von Trier, Catherine Breillat, or Gaspar Noe.  I don’t know, this movie is in some weird place where it presses too many buttons to be comfortable but no enough buttons to feel like this really exciting bit of boldness and the end movie just feels kind of strange all around.  I’d like to be able to get on some soapbox and declare that I didn’t like it because of some high-minded principle but really I just think it kind of fails itself in a number of ways and the overall mix just didn’t work for me.

Doctor Strange(11/14/2016)

11-14-2016DoctorStrange

I’m no expert on comic books but I know more than your average person and one thing I’ve always noticed about the Marvel universe is that it’s filled with characters who are ostensibly stars in their own right and have their own books but who mostly exist by making cameos in other more popular superheroes books.  These are characters like The Punisher or Ghost Rider or Black Widow who probably have their fanbases and which any Marvel fan will be able to recognize and know the general background of but who generally aren’t the marquee characters who sell tons of comic books.  Doctor Strange is definitely one of these characters.  He’s had titles over the years where he was the star but they have not been published consistently over the decades like, say, The X-Men have.  Instead most people will know him from his tendency to pop up in other heroes titles.  Say that Spider-Man were to find a magical trinket of some kind on one of his adventures, more than likely there would be a scene where he seeks out Doctor Strange to explain what this trinket was, thus both giving us a bit of exposition without having to involve some random boring scientist of occult expert.  Consequently, he’s a hero I don’t know a lot about given that most of my exposure to him involves single page cameos, but Marvel Studios is nothing if not adept at making obscure properties into box office hits and that’s exactly what they intend to do with the new feature length adaptation Doctor Strange.

The film focuses on a man named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a highly skilled and well paid surgeon and also something of an arrogant ass.  This hubris does catch up with him however when he starts texting patient dossiers while driving his Lamborghini around a mountain road and ends up in a huge wreck.  He survives the accident but is left with major nerve damage in his hands which leaves him unable to perform precise surgeries and thus unemployed and aimless.  In his desperation he goes to Nepal, where he’s heard that there’s some sort of genius who has caused miraculous recoveries in the past.  There he finds The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an expert of the mystical arts who is thousands of years old and massively powerful.  The Ancient One and her accolade Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) see some potential in Strange and invite him to train in the mystical arts at their sanctum and Strange uses the same photographic memory that made him such a great surgeon to quickly become an expert at mysticism, powers that he desperately needs because The Ancient One’s order is under threat of being destroyed by an apostate mystic named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who has joined forces with an evil demon from another realm named Dormammu to cause all sorts of evil and destruction.

If that plot sounds familiar it’s because Strange’s character arc bears a strong resemblance to Tony Stark’s arc from the original Iron Man except with our hero starting as an arrogant doctor (one that rather suspiciously resembles the title character from “House, M.D. in his mannerisms) instead of an arrogant industrialist.  From there the film follows a fairly typical superhero origin pattern, although it is perhaps notable that this hero is learning his skills from a mentor rather than coming to terms with his new powers on his own.  Of course The Ancient One’s reasons for accepting Strange as an accolade in the first place seem rather suspect.  Strange does not make a very good first impression when he arrives at the sanctum though his poor attitude and limited grasp on what the mystic arts are in the first place.  She seems to be persuaded to take him on for no real reason and her decision to take him or anyone else on as an accolade seems rather odd given that Kaecilius is already out and on the run as the film begins, which begs the question of exactly how long of a timeframe the film takes place over and why The Ancient One isn’t doing more to stop him over the course of Strange’s training.

So, clearly Doctor Strange isn’t exactly what you’d call a great work of literature but it makes up for this in a number of ways.  Doctor Strange has long been one of the more visually original superhero comic books what with its crazy interdimensional travel and spells and the movie does a pretty decent job of living up to that.  The various spells look very good onscreen and director Scott Derrickson (who mostly has a background making horror movies) does a pretty good job of adding a sort of logic to the craziness onscreen .  The standout visual is of course the one hinted at in the trailers where urban areas are bend out of shape like an M. C. Escher painting by way of Christopher Nolan.  It should perhaps be noted that this is the first Marvel movie I opted to see in 3D and I think it’s the first movie in general I’ve seen in that format since Gravity.  This isn’t exactly the most vital use of 3D I’ve ever seen, but it is pretty neat and this is probably the way the movie should be seen, especially during the aforementioned city bending sequence.

This is kind of an odd movie to defend.  I’ve spent nearly a decade whining that Marvel movies have an unfortunate cookie-cutter quality and yet here I am just throwing up my hands and saying “whatever, it’s fun” in the face of one of their most derivative efforts yet.  I think part of that is timing.  The last Marvel movie was Captain America: Civil War, which I’m told only came out six months ago but it kind of feels like it’s been an eternity since then.  What’s more we haven’t gotten a solo origin movie from them since last year’s Ant-Man and before that we haven’t gotten one since… geez, since the first Captain America movie.  The movie also has the befit of coming out at a time when we are richly in need of escapism.  I watched the movie the weekend before the presidential election when I was a bundle of nerves and as I write this I now know the outcome and… oh boy, I think we’re going to need Marvel more than ever in the next four years.

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Don’t Breathe(8/27/2016)

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I’ve seen a lot of movies this year, but if there’s been one subset of the year’s cinematic output that I just could not be bothered with it’s the horror movies.  I feel like I’ve spent the last five years railing against the overuse of movies about haunted houses that rely on cheap jump scares in order to get a reaction from their audience and clearly no one in Hollywood is listening because the most successful horror movies this year has mostly given us the likes of The Conjuring 2, Lights Out, and in a month or so we’re going to be “treated” to Ouija: Origin of Evil.  Outside of that nonsense we’ve had, what?  The Purge: Election Year (the second sequel to a movie that shouldn’t have had one sequel) and I guess you could count Green Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane if you wanted to but really those are both thrillers rather than true horror films.  The lone exception and sign of hope has of course been The Witch but that was so long ago at this point that it barely feels like it came out this year.  One glimmer of hope seems to have come in the form of Don’t Breathe, a horror film that comes with a number or critical plaudits and which is being helmed by producer Sam Raimi and director Fede Alvarez who both brought a pretty respectable (and extremely gory) remake of Raimi’s own The Evil Dead to the screens not too long ago.

The film is set in Detroit and focuses in on three young malcontents named Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) who have taken it upon themselves to break into and rob various homes in the area.  Rocky and Money are a couple and are saving up to run away to California with Rocky’s daughter and Alex seems to be going along with them out of a sort of loyalty to childhood friends.  The three are close to their goal when they learn about a mark that could put them over the top: a blind army veteran (Stephen Lang) who lives in an almost entirely abandoned neighborhood but likely has a large sum of cash stashed there (presumably he doesn’t believe in banking) which he won in a settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident.  Alex is a bit reluctant but is finally convinced to help his friends but once they get into the house it quickly becomes apparent that they’ve chosen the wrong person to mess with and things quickly start going badly for them.

The basic premise to this may sound somewhat familiar to film lovers as it basically the same premise as Wait Until Dark except that curiously the film is told from the perspective of the Alan Arkin character and his gang… and the Audrey Hepburn character has been replaced by the villain from Avatar and he is clearly a believer in “stand your ground” laws.  The film tries to give these characters their reasons for being involved in a life of crime, but robbing from a blind war veteran is pretty damn low.  Getting an audience to sympathize with people who would do something like that requires a level of moral complexity and character development that I don’t think this movie is equipped for and I think that’s ultimately the fatal flaw that kind of sinks the movie for me.  Empathy is pretty important part of horror and nothing deflates suspense like thinking that the person being stalked by the psychotic killer kind of has it coming.  Now, I’m not saying I necessarily wanted the characters in this movie to be killed for their breaking and entering careers, but I certainly wasn’t rooting for them to pull off their heist and given that their hunter is a disabled person who never asked to be dealing with these intruders in the first place it was just a little hard for me to really get that edge of my seat feeling during the suspense sequences.  Granted the movie does eventually reveal that this victim is actually quite unsavory, but at that point it’s a little too late.

It is a shame that this concept never really worked for me because there is clearly skill being displayed on screen.  Fede Alvarez does a really good job of turning this one house into a stage for a lot of activity and clearly knows how to stage a number of these set pieces.  There’s a part towards the end involving a car and a dog which borders on the masterful, but the film’s central concept still nags at me.  It should not be this hard for three able bodied teenagers to escape from an old blind man and it takes a lot of contrivance to explain why they’re never able to just make a run for it and these characters just aren’t interesting enough to overcome the incredible unlikablity of what they’re trying to do.  As a whole I ended up finding the movie to be a pretty empty exercise.  Then again, I felt more or less the same way about the movie Green Room earlier this year and I was clearly in the minority about that one as well, so maybe it’s just me.

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