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: “The Imitation Game”

Starring
Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Mark Strong, Charles Dance
Director
Morten Tyldum

There are at least two stories within “The Imitation Game” that, by themselves, would make for gripping films. There is Alan Turing the maths genius (the English add an ‘s’ to math, for some reason), and there is Alan Turing the closeted homosexual, in a country where being gay is illegal. Since it is difficult to secure funding for any movie, the obvious choice, of course, is to combine these two massive plots to make one hell of a film. There are times when the two stories get in the way of one another, but thanks to a cracking script and superb performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game” gives “A Beautiful Mind” a run for its money in the “damaged genius period piece” genre, assuming there is such a thing.

World War II is in full swing, and Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), a Cambridge maths professor, applies for a job with the British military because they need code breakers, and Turing is convinced that he is the brightest mind they will ever find. Despite bombing the interview in spectacular fashion, Turing is recruited to join a team of math geniuses. Their task: break the Enigma code, the German encryption tool that is sent out on open airwaves but is so complex that no one has been able to solve it. (Turing’s team even has an Enigma machine, but the code is so dense that it is of no use.) Turing pulls some unpopular moves to put himself in charge of the group, but eventually earns the group’s respect. His commanding officer (Charles Dance), however, needs results, and because of the aforementioned bad interview, he’s looking for a reason to shut Turing’s program down. In comes plucky Joan Clarke (Knightley), who has the misfortune of being a female good at maths. Turing, naturally, bonds with her instantly, since they are both outcasts. Turing and Clarke do amazing things together, and just when they think it’s time to celebrate, that is when they realize that they have a whole new set of decisions to make, and they are far more difficult than the previous set of problems that faced them.

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Movie Review: “Penguins of Madagascar”

Starring
Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon, Christopher Knights, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich
Directors
Eric Darnell & Simon J. Smith

And so it’s come to this: spinoffs.

To be fair, “Penguins of Madagascar” makes perfect business sense on a number of levels. The penguins have been a TV staple for six years, so giving them a full-length feature has zero risk and a built-in audience. As an added bonus, launching a spinoff buys time for DreamWorks to plan the next “Madagascar” movie (currently scheduled for 2018). The tail is clearly wagging the dog here, for better and for worse. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s a shallow one. It’s also strange to get an origin story, and a hollow one at that, for characters we’ve known for almost 10 years.

The movie begins with Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller) and Rico (Conrad Vernon), as young penguins, daring to go against the conformist penguins and battling leopard seals in order to save a runaway, unhatched penguin egg, which would ultimately be Private (Christopher Knights). From that day forward, the four vowed to go against the grain and live for adventure. One day, they are captured by Dr. Octavius Brine (John Malkovich), who’s actually an octopus in disguise that is fed up with the overall cuteness of penguins, and plans to ruin them for all mankind. Enter the North Wind, a government agency assigned to protect animals in danger. Their leader is a wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose name is classified. Skipper does not like having to answer to Classified, but as penguins begin disappearing around the world, the two must find a way to coexist and catch Brine.

“Penguins of Madagascar” has a fantastic running joke that, frankly, I’m surprised no one has done before. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it is, because spoilers. It’s the best thing about the movie, though, and for that alone, you don’t want this to be spoiled by a film critic.

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Movie Review: “The Fifth Estate”

Starring
Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci
Director
Bill Condon

One would think that the group that turned modern-day journalism on its ear would have a much more interesting story to tell, or at least a more original story, than the one that drives “The Fifth Estate.” As it is, we have the age-old morality play about the man who sets out to bring justice to the oppressed but is ultimately undone by his own ego, played out by people on laptops. (Hollywood has tried again and again to make hacking look sexy. It’s not.) This is not to say that “The Fifth Estate” is dull, because it’s teeming with interesting bits and the possibilities for more. The problem is the execution, both from a story structure standpoint and a directorial standpoint. You will be hard pressed to find a movie this year as overly directed as this one.

IT guru Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) meets Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) at a tech conference. Assange has created a site that guarantees anonymity for whistle blowers with the intent of bringing large-scale wrongdoers to justice, and he recruits Daniel to help him get the message out. Their site WikiLeaks quickly finds an audience, but Assange grows resentful of Berg getting an ounce of credit for the site’s success, while Berg’s girlfriend grows resentful of her widow status as Assange calls on Berg at all hours of the day and night. Things come to a head when Assange plans on releasing a bunch of top secret US government files without redacting the names of informants in the field. Assange views redaction as bias. Berg views it as responsible journalism.

One question repeatedly sprang to mind while watching this movie: where did the money come from? We see multiple shots of Assange and Berg globetrotting for what seems like years before the subject of donations to WikiLeaks is even mentioned, meanwhile neither has a day job and Assange and Berg talk of how strapped for cash they are to increase their server space once they realize that demand is greater than their bandwidth can supply. If they’re both so broke, how were they able to travel the world seemingly at will?

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Movie Review: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

Starring
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin
Director
J.J. Abrams

To look back on the controversy circling around J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise is like trying to remember a distant dream: you vaguely recall that the fans of the long-running sci-fi franchise were freaking out about the idea of new actors slipping on the uniforms of James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but so many Trekkies came to embrace Abrams’ “Star Trek” so quickly that it’s almost like the controversy never happened. Y’know, like pretty much everything that ever happened in the original “Star Trek” series and movies. Or have you forgotten how Nero (Eric Bana), the villain in the 2009 film, went back in time on a mission of vengeance and proceeded to change the course of history?

Of course you haven’t forgotten. And you can be damned sure the Trekkies haven’t, either. Ever since Abrams’ film effectively wiped the slate clean on “Trek” history, theories have been flying by at warp speed about whether the next film would find Kirk and company on an all-new voyage or if the storyline might feature new takes on more classic characters. The answer? A little from Column A and a little from Column B. Thing is, we can’t really tell you much about the bits from Column B. Or, rather, we could, but we don’t want to spoil the fun…even if at least one of those fun bits has been bandied about as a plot possibility for the sequel from the very beginning.

Like its predecessor, “Star Trek Into Darkness” more or less starts off at full throttle, with the crew of the Enterprise in the midst of a mission to a strange new world which hasn’t yet reached the level of technology as the worlds within the United Federation of Planets, putting it under protection of the so-called Prime Directive. If you’re unfamiliar with the “Trek” mythos, this basically means that the planet is supposed to be left alone to develop at its own pace, but even if you barely know “Trek” at all, you still probably know that Kirk’s never been a big fan of following the rules, and as a comparative youngster in Starfleet, he’s still learning that there are significant consequences when the rules are broken. What he’s also learning is that not every officer is cut from the same cloth as Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood); some tend toward the hard-ass method of command, like Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller).

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