She’s A Wonder! – Jenkins’ Princess Rules!

Wonder-Woman-Tank-Poster

Director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman had a lot of baggage to carry when it arrived in theatres. The previous DC Extended Universe movies (Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad) had performed well (though not as well as hoped) at the box office, but were the subjects of vast swathes of critical scorn. Besides this was the more serious battle against Hollywood sexism, where the common perception among those with the power to greenlight productions has long been that women could neither helm nor feature as main stars of big, action franchise movies.

While I’m somewhat late to the game with this review (unusually, Wonder Woman has opened later here in Norway than in many other territories), it has given me the chance to see both of these issues blown out of the water by both the film’s success and critical reaction. The film set records for the biggest domestic opening for a female director ($103.3 million) and the biggest opening for a female-led comic book film, and has, to date, grossed over $500 million worldwide.

And I’m very happy to reiterate the good news. Taken on its own terms Wonder Woman is bright, funny, charming, exciting and a genuine feel-good movie. Taken against the issues weighted against it stepping into the ring you might also call it an outright triumph.

The origin story, well known to comic book fans since American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter brought her to the pages of All-Star Comics # 8 in 1941, is weaved into a World War I adventure which also brings in several of Princess Diana of Themyscira’s supporting characters (including Queen Hippolyta and the Amazons, Steve Trevor and Etta Candy) and in itself is a thoroughly entertaining romp.

Where the film really scores however is in several key ways that contrast sharply with the previous DC movies. Gone is the relentless grimdark misery of Batman vs Superman, the distancing ‘god above us’ approach to Superman and, praise the gods of film craft, the incoherent characterisation, storytelling and editing of Suicide Squad.

Jenkins’ film is generally full of clear storytelling and fun action sequences, even utilising Zack Snyder’s trademark speed ramping to actually help with both clarity and story (its use in an important moment where the Amazons face off against bullets for the first time not only looks cool but packs quite an emotional wallop). There are some genuinely exciting moments of action (Wonder Woman crossing No Man’s Land on the Belgian Front and her subsequent attack on a German stronghold are… sorry… wonders served more by character than empty cool visuals).

Wonder Woman moves at a breezy clip, from Paradise Island to London and finally to the battlefields of Belgium and, while it does ultimately succumb to the usual climax of two super-powered folk hurling big, heavy things at each other, it at least does so in an almost low-key way that provides a little emotional weight. However it doesn’t quite succeed in making the villainous character involved (I won’t name the actor either so as to avoid spoilers) seem massively threatening, which is a shame and sees some points knocked off.

Jenkins does have two extra special weapons: leads Gal Gadot and Chris Pine share terrific chemistry and carry more than their share of the film’s appeal. Pine has slowly become one of our more interesting screen presences, leading one particularly perceptive critic (and he/she will have to forgive my failing memory as to who exactly) to accurately describe him as “a character actor in a leading man’s body.” He’s a pretty face who’s pulled off a number of whip-smart performances and Wonder Woman is no exception, basting Steve Trevor in easy going, old time, movie star charm.

As for Gadot, the camera loves her and she’s well served by Jenkins and her writers (screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs) who together make Diana a warm, relatable character. There are plenty of small moments gifted to her which show why the world falls in love with Diana, and Gadot radiates atomic levels of charm while giving us a genuinely heroic hero, and make no doubt about it, one both men and women can root for!

At one point in the film, Pine’s Captain Steve Trevor tells Diana he’s taking her to London to meet with “the men who can” end the war. “I’m the man who can!” Diana replies, completely on point.

Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot and Wonder Woman? They’re the women who can.

Alien: Covenant – Look On My Works And Despair!

Alien-Covenant-Trailer-Breakdown-59

When Ridley Scott returned to the Alien franchise with Prometheus in 2012 hopes were high that the venerated director would give audiences the kind of scares associated with his original 1979 classic. What we got instead was a disjointed meditation on creation with a group of characters whose actions often seemed more alien than the series’ title creature.

During production of Alien: Covenant word of mouth suggested that Scott and the production team had taken onboard complaints that Prometheus had strayed too far from the formula and that this time… this time… we would see our beloved xenomorph restored to its full, chest-bursting glory.

Picking up ten years after we last saw Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender (as Dr Elizabeth Shaw and David) wander off into deep space to find mankind’s creators, we focus now on the crew of the colony ship, Covenant, heading for a remote planet, Origae-6, with two-thousand colonists and a thousand embryos on-board, monitored by an upgraded android resembling the earlier David, named Walter (also played by Fassbender).

Of course things go wrong on the mission and the ship is soon taking a detour to investigate a human signal coming from an alien planet – seemingly also ripe for colonisation.

Before you can say “In space, no one can hear you scream” the landing party runs into further trouble and for a while the film seems to be leading us along a familiar path with new forms of alien creatures, the neomorphs, making short work of everyone.

Then Fassbender’s David reappears and the film lurches into gothic Hammer horror territory. This might seem like an intriguing diversion but while Covenant IS more of a horror movie than Prometheus, Scott and his writers appear to have lost all interest in the alien. The real monster here is David, serving as Victor Frankenstein to the now dethroned star of the franchise.

Events reach a climax on the planet and the survivors return to the Covenant for a bizarre and utterly shoehorned in final fifteen minutes which attempts to recreate elements of both Scott’s 1979 original and James Cameron’s equally loved 1986 sequel, Aliens.

I have too much respect for Scott to suggest that Covenant’s Reader’s Digest abridged-version finale was a studio-dictated necessity but that is, sadly, exactly what it feels like. Events are rushed through and more crew members are dispatched with such rapidity that it would be easy to miss the true (and highly effective) horror enacted by David in the film’s final moments.

There are two movies struggling against each other, the attempted return to the scary roots of the franchise and the story Scott and co. are really interested in, that of David and Walter and the struggle with what they are, where they come from and their quest to find answers among the stars – which provide some of the most interesting moments of Covenant. Sadly, these two movies fail to cohere and we’re left with a story that satisfies neither requirement.

Scott is far too good a director for Covenant to be a disaster: there’s lots to enjoy and admire and there are moments of beauty, of intrigue and of genuine horror (and also, sadly, of unintentional humour… the baby alien raising its arms to copy David is a series low point). Unfortunately the ambition to turn the franchise into something of wider philosophical concerns dilutes the simple funhouse horror of the central creature, leaving him somewhat toothless and the film itself oddly schizophrenic.

Guardians 2 – Galaxy 0 – Gunn Scores Again!

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Vol-2-poster-header-700x300

When James Gunn hit with the original Guardians of the Galaxy, back in 2014, the film took many by surprise. For those of us who had been following both Marvel’s careful universe-building gameplan (up to that point) and Gunn’s career – starting with his days at Troma, through projects such as PG-Porn and onto the low to mid-budget gems, Super and Slither, the tone of Guardians was less of a surprise. More surprising, perhaps, was the fact that so much of Gunn’s off-kilter sensibility shone through the Marvel house style.

Happily, that sensibility has been allowed full reign for the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, perfectly encapsulated by the opening sequence which involves the already in-situ Guardians battling a tentacled space beast accompanied by the glorious harmonies of E.L.O.’s Mr. Blue Sky. Gunn being Gunn, the focus of the battle is kept to the background while we follow Baby Groot dancing along to Jeff Lynne’s most famous tune.

It’s this kind of oddball choice that gives both volumes their charm, and that’s added to by a cast now fitting snugly into their roles. Chris Pratt, Zoe Salanda, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel and Karen Gillan are all clearly having a ball, and Michael Rooker and Pom Klementieff grab their expanded and new roles respectively with relish.

The stand out star of Vol 2 for me however, was Dave Bautista. His Drax is an immensly likeable character and Bautista kills every single line and beat with expert comic timing. Vol 2 has several great laugh out loud moments and Bautista is at the heart of many of them.

Newcomers (to the MCU) Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone provide welcome gravitas and there are several fun and surprising cameos for both casual viewers and Marvel geeks (like me). Russell in particular plays well against Pratt and it’s something of a clash of the charmers whenever they share screentime.

Vol 2 is bold in style and is easily Marvel’s most colourful production to date – in fact the film generally resembles a particularly fine LSD trip, with shining rainbow colours splashed around gleefully. It’s a welcome expansion to Marvel’s usual colour palette, and one which the forthcoming Thor Ragnarok looks set to continue.

Also welcome is the greater emphasis on family relationships – a theme layered across several different sets of characters and one which even manages to colour the McGuffin that drives the plot. If this McGuffin feels a little underwhelming at first (even though it involves the end of the galaxy as we know it) a little reflection reveals surprising depth at the ostensible villain’s plans (I’m being deliberately circumspect here to avoid spoilers).

This emphasis makes for quite an emotional ride too, and you shouldn’t be surprised if your heartstrings aren’t well and truly tugged upon by the film’s climax.

If Vol 2 outstays its welcome by ten minutes or so, and wanders a little too amiably here and there (hello, extended sojourn on the Ravagers’ ship), that’s a small price to pay to spend two hours in the company of such superb characters. Honestly, I’d happily spend two hours with Drax, just revelling in his blunt as a brick one-liners.

This e-number fuelled adventure is a full on funhouse ride and as much of a good time as can be had without losing your underwear, and Gunn has definitely hit two for two. Bring on the promised Vol 3, I say.

*** Oh, and in the tradition of Marvel’s post-credit scenes, Vol 2 features no less than five, and viewers are advised to stay until the very, very end…

Dave Saves You From The Great Escape

scrooged

You know the deal. You’ve gathered in the warm, family hearth and home for the holiday season, you’re gorged on meats and sweets and faced with the prospect of sitting down to watch The Great Escape or Harry Potter for the umpteenth time.

Suggested by my friend, Maria Kreutzmann (hey, Maria) allow me to present you with ten alternatives to Steve McQueen or Daniel Radcliffe (although the latter does crop up here, albeit in a much gassier form). These are films which have tickled my cinematic fancy, both in decades past and of more recent vintage. Whether you’d term them cult movies (a much bastardised phrase) is down to your own viewing habits, but you’ll find these choices both close to and way off the beaten track.

Season’s greetings and you’re welcome…

Brotherhood of the Wolf/Le Pacte des loups (2001)
A genuine pleasure from start to finish – a French horror/action, werewolf, martial arts, sexy historical drama featuring Monica Belluci, Vincent Cassel and low rent but personable action star Mark Dacascos. Loosely based on a real-life series of killings that took place in France in the 18th century and the famous legend of the Beast of Gévaudan, this is a fever dream for lovers of exploitation movies and art house films, as it falls squarely between the two, producing something unique and utterly lovable.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Reviewed fully here on Out of Dave’s Head. Kurt Russell, Kurt Russell’s moustache, a Western/cannibal hybrid. What more do you need to know!?

Hammett (1982)
Despite massive tampering from the studio (script rewrites, massive reshoots), Wim Wenders’ American debut remains an interesting curio. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Hammett is a post-modern homage to and an attempted deconstruction of both pulp fiction mysteries and of author Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, etc), that features an excellent cast (Frederic Forrest, Peter Boyle, David Patrick Kelley and cinema stalwart Elisha Cook Jr) and ends up messy but stylish. It also has another of John Barry’s beautiful, late period scores. Well worth seeking out.

Lady in White (1988)
Criminally underrated and fully deserving of a decent blu-ray release, Lukas Haas stars in a spooky, atmospheric campfire tale that is deliciously layered and will have fans of 1980s Amblin’ and Netflix’s Stranger Things eating out of its hand. Put it together with the recent Woman in Black for a perfectly colour coordinated night of chills.

MSDLAIN EC015

Bigger Than Life (1956)
Nicholas Ray’s film packs a powerful punch, a mighty melodrama that gives a full-on Glasgow Kiss to stultifying 1950s morality. Featuring James Mason (who co-wrote and produced) as a hapless schoolteacher whose frustrations at life become more heightened as he becomes addicted to cortisone. This is Breaking Bad for the Rebel Without a Cause generation (not surprising since that was Ray’s previous film), and has a lot to say about our modern attitudes towards addiction and mental illness. It’s also beautiful to look at, featuring beautiful complimentary and contradictory widescreen photography.

Swiss Army Man (2016)
Another film with a full review here on Out of Dave’s Head. Up there as a contender for best film of 2016, right alongside The Greasy Strangler.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
So many wonderful things in this film – the Barry Manilow/drunk sequence, the forest elemental sequence (which should bring a tear to your eye), the beautifully nuanced climax, great performances (Perlman, Doug Jones, Anna Walton, Luke Goss), fabulous practical effects monsters and a gorgeous Elfman score. Not only a vast improvement over the original (which is already a lot of fun) but a brilliant movie in its own right. A monster movie with a great big, soft old heart. Now then, GDT, where the heck is Hellboy 3!?

Pépé le Moko (1937)
A romantic thriller that raises the genre to poetry. A possible inspiration for both Casablanca and The Third Man and a close relative of the soon-to-be-born Film Noir,  Pépé le Moko (Jean Gabin), is a criminal on the run in metropolitan France, living in the Casbah quarter of Algiers, where he is out of reach of the local police. Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) sees a way to lure Pépé out of his refuge when the criminal falls for Mireille Balin’s Gaby, the mistress of a rich businessman. Sensual, intriguing and essential, and Gabin’s character was also the inspiration for cartoon star, Pepe le Pew. Now you have to see it, right!?

The Unknown (1927)
One of my favourite silent movies, starring the incredible Lon Chaney (“the man of 1,000 faces”) as an armless carnival knife thrower (who throws with his feet) and a young Joan Crawford as the object of his affections. Crawford has a fear of being held in a man’s arms, which would be lucky for Chaney except for the fact that he’s actually a criminal on the run (which might make it a good double bill with the aforementioned, Pépé le Moko) who hides his fully functioning arms by keeping them bound to his torso. Needless to say, this affair doesn’t go well and The Unknown features a climax just as gruesome as director Tod Browning’s perhaps better known, Freaks.

the-unknown

The Baby (1973)
Director Ted Post is a firm favourite of mine, with his filmography covering the likes of Hang ‘em High and Magnum Force (with Clint Eastwood), Beneath the Planet of the Apes and a veritable smorgasbord of great TV work (The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Gunsmoke and, um, B.A.D. Cats). But nothing else he did was quite as out there as The Baby, a horror thriller that features an eccentric family which includes “Baby”, a 21-year-old man who acts like an infant. Best seen on a double bill with Jack Hill’s wonderful Spider Baby, which might put you off of families for life. Ideal Christmas viewing, in fact.

Rogue One – The Prequel You Always Wanted

rogueoneheader-1

When Disney/Lucasfilm announced a series of stand-alone films – away from the main trilogy – there was some speculation that this was not perhaps such a great idea, and when the first film announced was the story of the stolen Death Star plans which would lead straight into the beginning of Episode IV (or just plain, old Star Wars to those of us at the front of the queue back in 1977) that speculation turned to dismay in some quarters.

How could you make a successful and exciting film when everyone knows the ending? I suppose we could let James Cameron answer that one but in his absence, I’m here to tell you that those fears were completely unfounded.

British director, Gareth Edwards (he of the 2014 Godzilla reboot) has fashioned a thoroughly exciting and remarkably fresh feeling yarn in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, one that will excite and astound in equal measure. Double that up if you’re a confirmed Star Wars fan.

Featuring a fabulous (and fabulously diverse) cast, including Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Forest Whitaker, beautifully shot by Grig Fraser and marvellously scored by Michael Giacchino (utilising some of John Williams’ iconic themes, of course), Edwards gives us a good old, rip-roaring night out at the cinema that’s part war movie, part heist movie and 150% Star Wars movie.

The plot really is straightforward: Jones plays the daughter of Mikkelsen’s Death Star engineer, and the Rebel Alliance use her to try to steal the plans for the battle station before it can become fully operational.

That’s pretty much it, but that’s pretty much all we need. Everything else is a case of wind it up and let it go.

There aren’t vast swathes of depth to most of the characters, one or two performances don’t really work (hello, Forest Whitaker, I’m looking at you… just what the hell was that voice!?), and some of the dialogue is clunky (it’s a Star Wars film, of course there’s clunky dialogue), but there are so many more treasures here it’s hard, if not impossible to let these slides stand in the way of your enjoyment.

As always, Edwards’ sense of scale and scope is magnificent, he really knows how to frame a scene and open up the world with depth and focus. And boy does he know how to throw us into the trenches of war, we’re really allowed to feel the thrum of battle around us – both on the ground and in some of the most thrilling space battles ever put on screen (this is where a 3D screening really pays off, by the way).

The characters are introduced deftly and without fuss, meaning we hit the ground running and rarely pause for breath. Of these new characters, the two standouts are definitely Alan Tudyk (voicing K-2SO, a Rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid) and the mighty Donnie Yen (who kicks major ass as an almost-Jedi).

There are some neat and very timely shades painted into the dialogue which could be seen as a reflection of political attitudes surrounding us now (that’s definitely how I read them). When asked if she’d be happy seeing Imperial flags planted across the galaxy, Jones’ Jyn Erso replies: “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” It’s a small, simple moment, but it resonates, with so many people in our own world who don’t seem to want to look up.

And, best of all, Rogue One is fully immersed in the Star Wars universe – from blue milk (you either get it or you don’t) to the surprise appearances by… well, let’s leave that open until you’ve seen the film. When you have meet me back here and we can discuss the various merits and demerits of these added touches. Some work better than others (you’ll understand what I mean) but all are introduced for the right reasons and add a certain sense of playfulness to the film. One in particular (if you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know who I mean) gets a moment so magnificently brutal and wonderful that you can’t help but hope this won’t be our last return visit with him (…oh yes, it’s a him).

What I can tell you without fear of spoilers is that for the final forty-five minutes of Rogue One I genuinely sat with a huge grin spread across my face, caught up in the machinery of the plot and basking in the warm glow of a very familiar and a very welcome return to a galaxy far, far away.

And really, after Rogue One you’ll never need to watch those other bloody prequels again.

Shin Godzilla. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!

shin_godzilla_beam-1200x675

Warning: Here be spoilers.

When Toho announced in 2014 that we would be getting a new Godzilla film and it would be co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, with a screenplay by Anno and visual effects by Higuchi, it was a certainty that the men who collaborated on the anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion, would be giving us a very different kind of Godzilla.

And so, jump forward to 2016, and that’s exactly what we have. Shin Godzilla, or Godzilla Resurgence as it’s also known, takes a markedly different approach which will either be seen by viewers as a refreshing stroke of genius or as a huge disappointment.

I fall squarely in the former opinion. The human viewpoint in this film is not on some forced love affair, or crazed scientist caught up in the events of a giant monster stomping through Tokyo, but rather it takes a long, hard look at the stuff we usually don’t see: the politicians, the military, the administration and the bureaucracy thrown into complete turmoil by the emergence of a creature in Tokyo bay that comes up onto land and works its way through the city relentlessly.

That this creature is only the first stage in the development leading to the newest form of Godzilla is just one of the new slants taken by Anno & Higuchi. It’s a strange looking beast, almost comical, which serves to keep viewers on loose footing as we’re then shown how much damage it creates on a very personal level.

And that’s another interesting wrinkle, there are no central lead characters (despite the lead billing of Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, and Satomi Ishihara (whose struggles with her English line readings unfortunately shine through all too clearly). Instead, we follow a bureaucratic hive mind of politicians and scientists as they struggle to figure out evacuation plans to minimise the public death toll.

When the final Godzilla emerges again to wreak havoc, the stakes get higher as the U.S. threatens to intervene with nuclear weapons, a course still found abominable by the Japanese, of course. The politicians become caught between a rock and a hard place as they must decide whether to bow to international pressure or strike forward with their own plan.

I found this approach completely refreshing and was absorbed quickly into proceedings. Drawing inspiration from (and heavily alluding to) the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami gave this film a resonating power that really sets it apart from and yet beautifully parallels Ishiro Honda’s nuclear parable in 1954’s original, Godzilla. Anno and Higuchi are highly critical of the bureaucracy that frequently mires Japanese officials into inaction, but they also express positivity and hope of Japan finding its way without international intervention (something I feel has been misread in some quarters as out and out nationalism). Having said this, I can see why this very talky approach will not appeal to all viewers – there are a lot of scenes in board rooms and meeting rooms. Your mileage may vary.

The action when it comes is spectacular. Seeing Godzilla attack the military with an entire bridge is something that filled me with complete joy, and despite one or two shaky FX shots, this is a hugely impressive film visually, with many breathtaking shots. I also loved Godzilla’s astonishingly brutal new radioactive breath, and the newest additions to his arsenal.

The design of this new Godzilla has also proven to be controversial among Godzilla fans (but then change of any kind is always controversial among Godzilla fans). His slow movements and little arms (and biiiig thighs) do take a little getting used to, but I warmed to both approaches by the end.

Without going into full spoiler mode, the final shot is also quite horrifying and chilling (something I’ve not felt in a Godzilla film since Honda’s original) and if a sequel moves ahead – highly likely since this is now the highest grossing live-action Japanese film of 2016 and the highest grossing Japanese-produced Godzilla film in the franchise – then it would prove an intriguing starting point for any new story.

One of the qualities I love best about the Godzilla franchise is its constant ability to reinvent itself – it’s done so many times before and with Godzilla being a worldwide brand thanks to the continued success of the Japanese films and international offshoots such as Gareth Edwards’ 2012 U.S. production – and what I enjoyed about Shin Godzilla is that the big, scaly beast has mutated into something different once again. Don’t like it? Don’t worry, there’ll be yet another type of Godzilla along in twenty or thirty years. Right now, I’m happy with this horrific new incarnation.

Did that come out already!? – Bone Tomahawk

kurt

Every now and then a movie comes along that just calls to you, that feels like someone you meet and instantly know will become a friend. When I first read about Bone Tomahawk, a Western/cannibal hybrid with Kurt Russell, I said to myself “That’s a film made just for me if ever I heard of one!” and sure enough, I was thrilled and delighted with this brutal, wonderful gem.

Taking its place in the compact but often interesting genre of horror Western, S. Craig Zahler has stuffed his story with an excellent cast and structures it as a slow build that expertly winds up the tension. Kurt Russell, who just gets better with age, strides through the film with rugged ease (and another magnificently crafted moustache) and leads a posse out into some seriously badlands to retrieve townfolk taken by a raiding party of not-quite-Native American Indians. To say much more would spoil your enjoyment, but the film mixes elements of John Ford’s The Searchers with the gruesome horrors of Cannibal Holocaust and The Descent.

What gives the film its true power is the first hour spent in the company of the townspeople and the posse, deftly giving us characters to care about and root for. Lost’s Matthew Fox, Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson and the always dependable Richard Jenkins all work well together and there is much humour in the journey, making the eventual horrors even more unbearable.

Thankfully, Zahler resists the urge to go by-the-numbers, and the somewhat low key ending feels satisfying for a film that both plays by genre rules while bending them. The film is a great mixture of charm and brutality that won’t win over everyone but will find itself championed by those with a taste for films that stray off the beaten path.

Saddle up and settle in for the ride, just make sure you don’t eat while you’re watching.


Marvel’s Masterful, Mystical Doctor Strange

doctor-strangea

Many who know me might suggest I was always going to give this movie an easy ride. Doctor Strange has been one of my most beloved characters since I was first introduced to him sometime in the early 1970s. Let’s face it, I’m an easy mark for a movie featuring anything to do with Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts, right!?

But, as excited as I’ve been about seeing the good Doctor onscreen, I was always going to be this movie’s worst enemy, sitting in the dark of the theatre daring it to take a wrong step with the Sorcerer Supreme, challenging it to weigh up against forty years of expectation.  Doctor Strange has lived and breathed in my imagination for decades, so my warning to director Scott Derrickson and the Marvel team might have best been summed up by Yeats: Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Thankfully, I needn’t have worried, Doctor Strange delivers as faithful a translation of Stan Lee & Steve Ditko’s creation as a fan could ever wish for, and embellishes it with thoughtful meditations that give this version of the character some important textures.

The thrust of the plot follows that of the comics, and sees talented but arrogant neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange lose the use of his hands in an accident but gain a new life as he travels to the mystical Kamar-Taj to study the teachings of The Ancient One.

As Strange learns to use his newfound powers he comes into conflict with one of The Ancient One’s ex-students and uncovers a threat to the very existence of our reality.

Ultimately what makes Doctor Strange work is that beyond the far-out visuals and imaginative sparkle, Derrickson and the Marvel team have crafted a remarkably human story. Director, script and cast combine to give us a set of characters we care for and the storytelling is gifted with many grace notes of humour and small, human moments. Benedict Cumberbatch shines (sometimes literally) as he enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe, breathing a fully formed life into Doctor Stephen Strange even before the event that takes him on his spiritual journey.

Likewise, both Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are magnificent as The Ancient One and Karl Mordo respectively, both actors doing a lot of heavy lifting to fill in their unscripted humanity. Likewise, out of necessity of script mechanics, Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, fills in a lot of blanks through sheer will of performance. I can only hope she is given more to do in the sequel, because here she teeters dangerously on the edge of being wasted, and McAdams deserves far better than that. Benedict Wong is superb value too, as a version of Wong thankfully and necessarily much developed from the early comics.

The one actor given short shrift is Mads Mikkelsen, which also highlights the film’s one unfortunate weak point. With so much screen time given to introducing Strange and his supporting cast of characters, we’re never allowed to creep beneath the skin of Mikkelsen’s villainous Kaecilius. This is a charge often levelled at Marvel villains of course, and unfortunately Doctor Strange isn’t going to buck that trend.  Thankfully, this is balanced out by the long game developed for Ejiofor’s Mordo, and if you want the full effect of this you should most definitely stay in your seat until the very end of the credits for the vital scene which will no doubt kick off important events for the sequel. Also of note is the final title card, which promises that: Doctor Strange will return.

For a megalithic blockbuster, Doctor Strange has also emerged as a rather personal movie. Director Derrickson’s well documented faith and spiritualism both shine through and inform the film, adding fascinating and thoughtful layers to the story that needs to function for the franchise. The plot is playful with any number of ideologies and both studio and audiences should be happy that such an intelligent, contemplative fit was found for the character.

This thoughtfulness spills through into the climax of the film, which veers beautifully away from the usual CGI slam-fest (though it involves plenty of CGI) to bring about a truly unusual (oh go on then… downright Strange) resolution, true to the character and true to the notions of ego and selflessness at the heart of the mysticism which propels the film, care of Derrickson (and scriptwriters John Spaihts and C. Robert Cargil).

Of course, the real spiritual heart of Doctor Strange in the comics lies in the astonishing visuals envisioned by co-creator, Steve Ditko, and it’s from here the film truly dazzles. In this age of CGI bloat and fix-it-in-post visual effects, it’s increasingly rare to walk out from a movie feeling you’ve seen something wondrous and fresh, and Doctor Strange delivers both feelings in bucketfuls: from travels through glorious LSD landscapes of the psychedelic multiverse to breathtaking battles across ever-expanding M.C. Escher cityscapes, the film is a treat for the senses.

Those senses include your hearing, as Michael Giacchino (composer of wonderful scores for films such as Pixar’s The Incredibles and the recent Star Trek reboot – as well as, allegedly, Marvel’s forthcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming) lavishes the film with one of the studio’s most effective scores, including a Doctor Strange theme (all harpsichord, Hammond organ, sitars and jingle-jangle guitar) that you’re sure to be humming as you leave the theatre.

They say you should be careful what you wish for, but as an almost lifelong fan of the good Doctor, I could not have hoped for a more thrilling, magical and human translation of the story that’s played out in my psyche for so long.

Buy the ticket, take the ride, you’ll be glad you joined Marvel and Doctor Strange for this trip.

Train to Busan – Much Needed Life For The Zombie Film

train-to-busan-review

Whether, like me, you feel the zombie genre hasn’t offered anything new or exciting in a while, or whether you’re still in thrall to the wave of undead films, games and TV shows swarming across our screens, Train to Busan will offer up fresh meat on those rotting bones. To put it simply, this South Korean horror movie has become a late entry on my top films of the year.

The plot is straightforward; a disparate group of passengers board a train just as we are given glimpses that something bad is happening around them. The bad thing, of course, is a zombie apocalypse and director Yeon Sang-ho handles the perfectly timed build like a master, cluing us in ahead of the characters just enough so we feel the noose tightening around them.

Really, saying anything more than that regarding the plot would just spoil the fun for you, suffice to say that all hell breaks loose and the passengers of the train must survive long enough to reach the promised safety of the final stop, the city of Busan.

The film knows what it wants to be and revels in the pleasure of a non-stop barrage of thrills and chills. But, much like George Romero’s high point in the zombie genre, Dawn of the Dead, Sang-ho uses the film to make some barbed comments on society. That it makes them is worthy of attention and even though the film makes them a little bluntly on occasion these moments tend to be undercut with character building emotion, so they’re rarely wasted. One particular revelation is actually groan-worthy in its attempt to tie things up too neatly, but the director is smart enough not to linger on it too long before leaping into the next bravura sequence.

And bravura these sequence are. In the interests of keeping this review spoiler free I’ll just mention a favourite, prolonged sequence where our core group of passengers attempt to rescue another group trapped at the rear of the train, meaning they will need to pass through several train cars of zombies – and back again. It’s a sustained line of set pieces highlighting both the film’s ease with character development and its ability to ratchet up the tension, making smart use of some interesting wrinkles on the usual zombie characteristics and in particular of the location and its surroundings. You might even shed a tear or two.

There are some clichés here to be sure (the noble sacrifice gets more than one airing), but Sang-ho and writer, Park Joo-suk give their characters enough life (the living ones at least) to carry you through any hiccups and do enough with the nail-biting action and visuals  to make this a first class journey (…oh come on, I had to say it at some point in this review).

Train to Busan is a wonderful, high concept action/horror movie told with breathtaking confidence. Stylish, elegant and exciting, this is destined to become a major cult horror movie, regarded in the same revered breath as John Carpenter’s run of work from the late 1970s through the 1980s. A far less interesting Hollywood remake surely beckons.

Just when you think there’s little left to be said or done with the walking dead, along comes a movie which shows there’s life in those shambling old creatures yet.

Daniel Radcliffe Is The Only Stiff Thing About Swiss Army Man

swissarmy

What if I were to tell you that the most heartwarming, life affirming movie of the year involves the farting corpse of Harry Potter showing Paul Dano the meaning of friendship and love? I should mention that it also verges on being a musical.

If that seems unlikely, then the opening of the film, written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, will do little to persuade you. Dano, marooned and hysterically lonely on a tiny desert island, is attempting to commit suicide before being saved by the appearance of Daniel Radcliffe’s flatulent corpse washing up on the beach.

What follows next is a journey, both geographically (although that might be part of a grander delusion) and emotionally, of these two lost souls, who gradually connect with each other and, in that bond, reconnect with the world they left behind.

Dano is charming, desperate and possibly off his rocker, but he makes being delusional seem like a highly likable trait (for most of the running time, at least), while Radcliffe further proves his post-Potter career as being of increasing interest. His corpse is, paradoxically, full of life, showing constant curiosity at the strange new/old world that’s trying to come back into focus around him. Despite the constant farting, he is as likable as his co-star, and their utterly charming relationship is a joy to behold even as it flirts with homo-erotic necrophilia. How many films can you say that about!?

It’s all as strange as it sounds, but the quirkiness is held together by a strong emotional core, never quite tipping over into careless whimsy (though a large chunk of the final act veers dangerously close). This is a film full of beautiful and fragile moments, while at the same being chock full of farts and erections. It’s a bold and beguiling mix and the music score and songs, by Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell are magnificently uplifting, adding yet another wondrous layer to this strange confection.

If you’re not put off by the bizarre description you’re likely to be rewarded with a disarming buddy movie quite unlike any other, one that will make you laugh out loud and tug at your heartstrings. It will linger in your mind long after the final hilarious sequence which somehow manages to turn flatulence into something quite emotional.

And if all that doesn’t convince you, where else can you spend so much time focusing on a dead Harry Potter’s rampant erection!? Trust me, there’s nothing stiff about this film (apart from Daniel Radcliffe).