Movie Review: “Doctor Strange”

Starring
Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong
Director
Scott Derrickson

Like many of the filmmakers involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Scott Derrickson (who’s best known for horror films like “Sinister”) may not seem like the obvious choice to direct a “Doctor Strange” movie. Then again, it’s pretty amazing that a film called “Doctor Strange” exists at all, because it’s arguably one of the weirder properties under the Marvel banner. That uniqueness ends up working in its favor, however, as Derrickson has basically made a psychedelic kung fu/fantasy movie that is without question the most visually stunning film that Marvel has ever produced. Joining the ranks of other B-list characters like Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy, “Doctor Strange” marries its inventive visuals with the usual superhero story beats to deliver the best solo origin movie since director Jon Favreau kicked off the MCU with “Iron Man.”

The two films have a lot in common, beginning with their titular characters. Like Tony Stark, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a bit of an egomaniac – a brilliant neurosurgeon whose own hubris leads to his downfall. After he’s injured in a near-fatal car accident that renders his hands unusable, Strange tries every surgery and experimental treatment available in an attempt to save his career. When traditional medicine fails him, the bitter and defeated Strange goes looking for a miracle cure in Nepal, where he’s introduced to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful sorcerer who commands a mysterious order of warrior monks, including Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), charged with protecting Earth from supernatural threats. Though Strange is skeptical at first, the Ancient One opens his mind to the infinite power and knowledge that the universe contains, ultimately taking him on as a student of the mystic arts. But after a former acolyte named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) steals a forbidden ritual from the Ancient One and goes rogue, amassing his own army of zealots to bring about world destruction, Strange must put aside his selfishness to help stop him.

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Movie Review: “Hacksaw Ridge”

Starring
Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, Rachel Griffiths
Director
Mel Gibson

The story of Desmond Doss is so remarkable that it’s surprising it took this long for someone to make a film based on his life. Although Hollywood has produced plenty of movies about real-life war heroes, Doss is a fairly unique case: a U.S. Army medic and devout Seventh-day Adventist who single-handedly saved 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa without ever firing a shot. It’s the kind of material that Mel Gibson typically gravitates towards as a filmmaker, which is why it’s so fitting that “Hacksaw Ridge” marks the director’s long-awaited return behind the camera. “Hacksaw Ridge” isn’t as great as some of Gibson’s past work, but it’s a well-made drama that’s bolstered by a superb central performance and the best battle sequences since “Saving Private Ryan.”

Before plunging the audience into the horrors of WWII, however, Gibson flashes back to a year earlier to show how Desmond’s (Andrew Garfield) fractured home life and his romance with local nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) led him to enlist in the Army. Though Desmond doesn’t believe in violence, his sense of patriotism and duty compels him to follow in his brother’s footsteps, much to the disapproval of his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), who witnessed all of his friends killed in action during the first World War.

Desmond wants to serve as a combat medic so that he can save lives rather than take them, but upon arriving at Fort Jackson for basic training, he’s met with resistance by his commanding officers, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), who try to convince Desmond to quit and then court-martial him for his refusal to carry a weapon. But since we already know how the story ends (in fact, Gibson opens the movie with a shot of Desmond being carried across the battlefield), it’s safe to say that he wins the case and is shipped out with the rest of his unit to Japan, where he would go on to earn the respect of his fellow soldiers in a miraculous act of heroism and bravery.

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Movie Review: “Trolls”

Starring
Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Christine Baranski, Russell Brand, John Cleese, Jeffrey Tambor
Director
Walt Dohrn & Mike Mitchell

A movie about Troll dolls is almost comically cynical. Take a product line that has lost its luster, repackage it for the next generation and laugh all the way to the bank. It’s the textbook definition of a cold, calculated, brand-driven cash grab. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is exactly what people said about “The LEGO Movie” before it came out. Then that movie turned out to be awesome, and the nation ate a fair amount of crow.

“Trolls” is no “LEGO Movie,” but there is something to it, a relentlessness of spirit that is undeniable. It has a stunningly unique visual style, the musical numbers are a deftly chosen blend of big pop hits and lesser-known but worthy songs (all selected by co-star Justin Timberlake), and the voice casting is sublime. The ‘B’ story could have used some work (it’s a Disney princess story, almost verbatim), and it ultimately lacks the courage of its early convictions, but it is still a wildly entertaining movie.

The trolls are impossibly happy, follicly-blessed creatures who live in a tree in the middle of a village of Bergens, miserable folk whose only joy comes from eating a troll, and the eating of a troll becomes a Bergen holiday. On one of these holidays, the trolls escape, and for 20 years, they live a blissful, hug-filled existence. The new Bergen king (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has been told his entire life that he will never be happy until he eats a troll, so when the disgraced Chef (Christine Baranski), who’s been cast out of Bergenville after the trolls’ great escape happened on her watch, finds the trolls’ hiding place and snatches several trolls to offer to the king, he is more than eager to restart the long-abandoned tradition of eating a troll. Troll Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) sets out to save her kidnapped friends with reluctant assistance from sullen troll Branch (Timberlake).

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Blu Tuesday: Star Trek Beyond, Bad Moms and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“Star Trek Beyond”

WHAT: When the USS Enterprise is ambushed by Krall (Idris Elba), a ruthless enemy with a personal grudge against the Federation, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew are separated on a hostile planet. With the help of a rebellious alien warrior named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the crew must reunite in time to stop Krall from destroying a nearby Federation outpost.

WHY: After all the criticism surrounding “Star Trek Into Darkness,” it was probably time for the franchise to undergo a changing of the guard. But while director Justin Lin and writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung have returned the series to its television roots with “Star Trek Beyond,” it’s easily the weakest installment starring the new cast. That doesn’t mean the movie’s bad – in fact, quite the contrary – but while the decision to pair off the various crew members is a clever idea, it takes away from the group dynamic that worked so well in the first two films. Karl Urban, whose odd-couple pairing with Zachary Quinto’s Spock is the movie’s highlight, gets more to do as a result, but often at the expense of other characters like Sulu and Uhura. “Star Trek Beyond” also suffers from yet another forgettable villain, as well as some solid but unspectacular action. Although it’s still a satisfying addition to the “Star Trek” universe, the ensemble cast and Gene Roddenberry’s characters deserve better.

EXTRAS: There’s a series of featurettes on the writing process, filming in Dubai, production design and creature effects, a profile on Idris Elba’s villain, a tribute to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, deleted scenes, a gag reel and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Revisiting “Carrie” on its 40th Anniversary

carrie

Despite many attempts at rebooting and remaking Stephen King’s first novel (including most recently in 2013), the 1976 version of “Carrie” remains the best version of the story. The story itself is a perennial tale that strikes a chord with anyone that has ever felt out of place, ridiculed or powerless. But it is director Brian De Palma’s version that has lasted for 40 years (celebrating its anniversary on November 3rd) and has woven itself so completely into the fabric of pop culture.

There has been one other film adaptation of King’s book, a TV movie, a sequel and a Broadway musical, and yet it’s De Palma’s vision that has stood the test of time and embedded itself into the public consciousness. Much of this is the great work of screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, translating King’s epistolary novel into a vital examination of teenager outsiders, but it also is De Palma’s expert direction. The film is melodramatic at times, with heightened emotions echoing throughout its running time (even in the comic moments, it’s a pretty heightened view of reality). But that’s perfect for the tableau of teenage life, where everything is the most important; every social faux pas, every Prom, every moment is weighted against surging hormones and a rigid societal structure within the school. By using larger emotions, the dramatic score by Pino Donaggio, and the excellent framing of camera shots, De Palma puts the audience into the mindset of a teenager and allows them to empathize easily with the emotions.

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