Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Doctor Strange is magical entertainment: A film review

Doctor Strange is magical entertainment: A film review
by rick olivares

I somewhat felt some trepidation going to the theater to watch Doctor Strange considering this is the first Marvel film without their former creative committee that included Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, Marvel Comics publisher Dan Buckley, Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada, writer Brian Michael Bendis, and Marvel executive Alan Fine.

After Marvel’s own “civil war”, Feige is now at the helm of the film division without input from anyone else. And the new dawn is evident in the opening where we see a new Marvel Studios film intro that has none of the trademark comic book panels that created an elegant pastiche of four colored delight. Instead, we see the characters and actors from all the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

However, agonize no longer. Doctor Strange combines the best of “The Matrix”, “Inception”, and one of those favorite television shows of mine as a kid, “Kung Fu” that starred David Carradine but this one comes with a healthy dose of the mystic. The result is a trippy, psychedelic, funny origin film about a most unlikely hero. Yep. Another home run for Marvel Studios.

The titular character of Doctor Stephen Strange, played with sumptuous panache by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a brilliant yet egotistical surgeon who survives a horrific car accident that effectively ends his career in medicine. Yet, you can’t keep a good doctor down. When Western medicine fails him, Strange heads east to Nepal where finds enlightenment as a sorcerer supreme under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Strange joins them just in time to fend off the menace of a former apprentice in Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who seeks to bring Earth under the influence of Dormammu and his Dark Dimension so all may benefit from the “gift” of everlasting life.

More to the surprise is how director Scott Derrickson who directed one of the most frightening films in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and other horror-fests put this whole thing together that fits seamlessly in the MCU. He took the mind-bending reality of “The Matrix” and then “Inception” further into these collapsing blocks that you wonder if all these buildings will come together to form Constructicon (yes, I know the Constructicons form Devastator).

He imbued the film with the MCU’s trademark humor, smart use of pop songs, and nods to its comic book origins that will make old-time fanboys like me praising the Vishanti.

The humor blindsides you the way Strange’s Lamborghini Huracan hit some rocks during a sharp turn. From the operating room scene where Strange taps his foot to Earth, Wind & Fire’s classic “Shining Star” that segues into Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” to the wifi password “Shamballa” that given by Mordo to Strange is a delightful nod to that awesome graphic novel published in 1986 “Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa” that was written by J.M. DeMatteis and painted work by Dan Green that reminds me of P. Craig Russell’s work.

I love the way the Cloak of Levitation is given “life”. Like the wands in Harry Potter, the cloak as do other mystic avatars in the film choose their master. The cloak’s preventive instincts lend a humorous touch and is the surprise star of the show (outside the cast). Move over, Groot. You’ve got company.

Another cool Easter Egg/cameo is the use of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” in the film. That is a wonderful nod to the long relationship between Doctor Strange and those art rockers. The English band’s 1968 album, “A Saucerful of Secrets” makes use of artwork from Doctor Strange’s comics (as drawn by the now retired comic book artist Marie Severin).

The following year, Pink Floyd recorded a song “Cymbaline” for their album “More”. The songs makes a direct reference to Doctor Strange:

“The lines converging where you stand,
They must have moved the picture plain.
The leaves are heavy round your feet.
You hear the thunder of the train.
Suddenly it strikes you
That they're moving into range.
And Doctor Strange is always changing size.”

And just this past September, Cumberbatch joined Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour on stage at the Royal Albert Hall to perform the band’s fave “Comfortably Numb”.

The film borrows a few scenes from that great Doctor Strange story, 2013’s “The Oath” (written by Brian K. Vaughn and drawn by the talented Marcos Martin. The astral form of Strange in the operating room is reprised. Except instead of Night Nurse (who is now Luke Cage’s love interest), it’s the film’s version of Christine Palmer (played the pretty Rachel McAdams and is this film’s Pepper Potts) who gets spooked!

The surgeon who operates on Strange’s mangled hands is none other than Nicodemus West (played by Michael Stuhlbarg). In “The Oath”, West is not only a rival surgeon but also a sorcerer who will battle Strange eventually.

There’s a portion where Kaecilius is after Strange in the New York Sanctum Santorum when the latter reaches out for a battle axe on the wall. However, the Cloak of Levitation prevents him from grabbing it and instead seems to point to this harness that will imprison the dark wizard. The axe is a prominent weapon in the current comic book series of Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo. Was this a reference to the split between the aforementioned creative committee?

One of the film’s strengths is the strong cast.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange is like a distant relative of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark minus the bizarre sense of humor. There’s a regal bearing to Cumberbatch’s Strange.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of the best in playing tormented characters (alongside James Earl Jones and Idris Elba) with a level-headedness that belies the sinister streak and capacity for violence. He first caught my attention “the Operative” in Josh Whedon’s “Serenity”. His character of Dr. Vincent Kapoor in “The Martian” was no less powerful. As Karl Mordo, who will go on to be dangerous adversary of Doctor Strange, he cuts another sympathetic villain in the making like Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War or even Alfred Molina’s excellent portrayal of Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2.

I have to admit that I disapproved of a Celtic Ancient One (as mentioned in the film). I have to say that Tilda Swinton was fine. However, there’s a frailty to her especially when she realizes that Strange and Mordo have understood the source of her power. So I still disapprove. East is East and West is West. Maybe Ken Watanabe would have been a better fit. But that’s done. Swinton though isn’t so bad.

Benedict Wong as Strange’s eventual valet, Wong, has the makings of a good sidekick with toughness and a pinch of humor. The Beyonce “cameo” was awesome. And the revelation that the Eye of Agamotto is an Infinity Stone by Wong… that teases of what is to come including the Infinity War that supposedly wraps up all three phases of the MCU!

I can’t wait!

I read the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko comics but never fully got into the character as a solo character until Roger Stern began writing the second series in 1983 (with art by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin). I read “The Defenders” when writer Steve Gerber and penciller Sal Buscema were working on the title but wasn’t really a fan of the Master of the Mystic Arts until more recent times when Brian K Vaughn and Marcos Martin worked on a story titled “The Oath” that was published in 2013. Then I subsequently picked up the new series written by Aaron and Bachalo.

Doctor Strange is pretty good. What stops this film from making the jump into the realm of greatness is a certain lack of exposition in some scenes. It would have been nice to see a few more scenes of Strange in Kamar-Taj learning the ways of the Ancient One from studying the mystic arts to the more martial version. It would have also been nice to see a little back story to Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius. Even just a bit.

But that’s my one other quibble aside from the Ancient One being Celtic.

I love the film because I really couldn’t predict where it was going. It’s got strong characters with loads of potential.

As Strange quipped in the film, “I don’t believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief”. Yet Scott Derrickson pulled it off.

In the year of the strange… after Stranger Things, Doctor Strange is movie making magic.

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