Doctor Strange Review: Cosmic craziness


Director: Scott Derrickson

Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton

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Release date: October 27th, 2016

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA 

Running time: 115 minutes


3½/5

Best part: The energetic performances.

Worst part: Another weak MCU villain.

Unquestionably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an unstoppable machine. Disney won big after purchasing the comic book/movie juggernaut. Since the series’ humble beginnings, with 2008’s Iron Man, Disney and co. have delivered mini-franchises, spin-offs and origin stories without quit.

Doctor Strange is the latest B/C-list character – following Iron Man, Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy etc. – to receive a breakout blockbuster. The opportunity gives Marvel characters new time in the spotlight. The franchise’s latest adventure delivers yet another major superhero origin. We meet egotistical neurosurgeon Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) conducting a miracle procedure. The award-winning, super-rich professional places reputation ahead of connection. On his way to a presentation, Strange is mangled in a horrific car accident. Nerve damage prevents Dr. Strange from continuing his life’s work. He heads to Nepal, convinced the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and secret compound Kamar-Taj, can cure him. Whilst working alongside side-mentor Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange meets dark-magic-afflicted former student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).

After 14 installments, the MCU formula is more pronounced than ever. Almost all of them feature a cocky hero brought down by a tragic experience, re-building themselves with money and powers, encountering a plucky love interest, finding the villain/s responsible and destroying the world-ending/blue-beam-in-the-sky threat. Doctor Strange follows said template to the letter. In fact, this one cherry picks specific elements from each movie. Like Iron Man, the first third develops our lead character as being super smart and even more unlikable. He can do anything: pick and choose intricate surgeries, bound around with a boisterous smile, list every song and its history etc. Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil), along with fellow writer C. Robert Cargill, expertly depict his rise and fall via heart-wrenching, somber montage.

Doctor Strange‘s multitude of realms and abilities is overwhelming. Derrickson and co. continually transition between origin story tropes, training montages and exposition. They revel in trippy dream sequences and flashbacks. However, the astral plane/mirror dimension sequences are jaw-dropping. As Strange delves deeper, Derrickson provides more time-and-space-bending set-pieces. The prologue provides a kick-ass introduction to MCU’s cosmic ether. The Ancient One and Kaecilius fragment London streets. From MC Esher city sequences to impressive production design, the movie truly reaches for the stars. Its A-list cast give nuanced performances in out-there roles. Cumberbatch is a welcome addition, down-playing every note with verve. Swinton and Ejiofor are charming in valuable roles. However, Mikkelsen is the latest white, middle-aged character-actor portraying a forgettable MCU villain.

Doctor Strange is a hyperkinetic and enjoyable MCU extender. Derrickson wrangles a starry cast, falls into line and fits Jon Favreau’s breezy tone. It provides enough nuances to stand out from the pack. However, this franchise might just have peaked with Captain America: Civil War.

Verdict: Another enjoyable MCU instalment.

 

X-Men: Apocalypse Review: Super-meh


Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Simon Kinberg

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac

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Release date: May 19th, 2016

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 144 minutes


3/5

Best part: The stacked cast.

Worst part: The weak villain.

Halfway through the ninth X-Men franchise installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, four characters walk out of a cinema having just seen Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. One character discusses the A New Hope‘s ground-breaking aura. Another praises The Empire Strikes Back‘s darkness and complexity. Finally, another snarkily retorts: “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst”. Although a throwaway jab at X-Men 3: The Last Stand, the line perfectly sums up my feelings about this latest entry. Sorry Apocalypse, you shot yourself in the foot.

This series, kicking off back in 2000, set the bar for action-adventure storytelling and superhero cinema with a modest and mature first installment. Since then, the genre has launched into the x-men-6-2bc1b619-fbb6-4faf-9a71-45464932d131stratosphere. The franchise has been on a rollercoaster ride of stellar (X-Men 2), unique (The Wolverine), and terrible (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) entries. Following up the kooky X-Men: First Class and exhilarating X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse dives into the 1980s’ brightly coloured, discomforting void. The world has grown weary of mutantkind, with the events of Days of Future Past now
etched into modern history. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has built his college for gifted students in Westchester County, New York. Meanwhile, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) learns of old frenemy Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto(Michael Fassbender)’s return to the war between them and humanity.

That synopsis barely scratches the surface regarding Apocalypse‘s multitude of plot-threads and character arcs. All-powerful being En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), inadvertently awoken by CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert(Rose Byrne)’s activities, gathers his ‘Four Horsemen’ – Lehnsherr, Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Hardy), and Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn) – to help obliterate the world. Earth-shattering events draw Dr. Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Michael-Fassbender-X-Men-Apocalypse-TrailerTill), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the battle.

Sadly, X-Men: Apocalypse pales in comparison to trend-setters Days of Future Past and Captain America: Civil War. The movie cherry-picks plot-strands, sociopolitical messages, emotional moments, and memorable sequences directly from earlier X-Men flicks. The overall narrative (end of the world, blah blah blah) is lifted from countless blockbusters before it. Director Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, Days of Future Past) and screenwriter Simon Kinberg, once again, explore Xavier and Lehnsherr’s push-me, pull-you dynamic, Raven’s wavering allegiances, William Stryker(Josh Helman)’s shady dealings, new mutants brought into Xavier’s school, and recurring characters making googly eyes at one another. It’s not bad, just too familiar. In fairness, thin sub-plots including Lehnsherr’s Polish family life torn asunder and younger maxresdefault (1)mutants becoming friends make for several interesting patches.

At an exhaustive 144 minutes, Apocalypse feels overstuffed, underdeveloped, inconsequential and bloated simultaneously. The nihilistic worldview, washed-out colour palette and dreary atmosphere permeate. Worse still, Despite the terrific Quicksilver, nuclear warhead, and Auschwitz set-pieces, the third act becomes a mind-numbing blend of mutant powers and cataclysmic destruction. For all the bluster of exotic locations, pretty performers, Logan/Wolverine(Hugh Jackman) cameos, and millions of dollars, the movie crumbles thanks to its titular villain. After a blistering opening sequence, depicting Apocalypse’s Ancient Egyptian origins, the character is given nothing but cheesy dialogue and vaguely defined abilities. Isaac, one of Hollywood’s most promising talents, is stranded under layers of costuming, prosthetic make-up, and voice modulation.

The low-three-star Apocalypse survives primarily on its cast’s enthusiasm and inherent charisma. Pulling themselves through silly dialogue, McAvoy and Fassbender are compelling leading men. Imbuing Xavier and Magneto with warmth, both thespians treat the material with respect. Dodging the Mystique maxresdefaultmakeup at every turn, Lawrence brings her deer-in-headlights/contractual-obligation facial expression to an underwritten character. Fortunately, Hoult, Peters, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Tuner get just enough screen time to develop chemistry and lasting impact. However, Munn, Shipp and Hardy barely register in glorified henchman roles.

Despite going through sequels, prequels, and reboots, the X-Men franchise needs yet another shake-up. X-Men: Apocalypse, like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, just cannot compete against the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Less really is more, and Deadpool is starting to look a lot better.

Verdict: A middling, overstuffed superhero flick.

Daredevil – Season 2 Review: Red & Black


Creators: Doug Petrie, Marco Ramirez

Channel: Netflix

Stars: Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Jon Bernthal

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Genre: Action, Crime-drama, Superhero

Premiere: March 18th, 2016

Country: USA


4½/5

Best part: Jon Bernthal.

Worst part: A few too many episodes.

Last year, Netflix and Marvel’s first collaboration, Daredevil, set the bar for superheroes on the small screen. With Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War taking over the big screen in 2016, Marvel and DC Comics/Warner Bros. continue their ongoing war for supremacy and positive reviews in our homes. Eclipsing The Flash, Gotham, Agents of SHIELD, and Arrow, Daredevil – Season 2 is the best superhero show and one of contemporary TV’s biggest surprises to date.

Daredevil – Season 2 kicks off acknowledging the back-breaking, bone-crunching events of Season 1. With Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) behind bars, Law firm Nelson and Murdock, held up by colleagues/best friends Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), is – despite sending Fisk to the slammer – facing a swift tumble down the plughole. Murdock, donning the red, leather Daredevil costume every night, is forced to decide between a quaint existence alongside Nelson and assistant Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and ongoing vigilante/saviour responsibilities.

Of course, topping the quality and events of the previous season, Daredevil’s second outing introduces higher stakes and several alluring new characters. Frank Castle/The Punisher (Jon Bernthal) is a man driven to the edge of sanity by the death of his wife and child. With Hell’s Kitchen gangs hunted down one by one, the public soon turns against Castle and Murdock’s forms of citizen justice. Castle, depicted in several lacklustre big-screen iterations previously, is treated with respect here. Like his comic-book counterpart, this version is a cunning, thought-provoking anti-hero unafraid to twist the knife. Their action sequences provide that ‘dark & gritty’ aura most blockbusters fumble, informing each character’s persona and the show’s hyperkinetic atmosphere.

Daredevil and Castle’s conflict provides the psychological and thematic backbone other superhero adaptations typically lack. Castle provides a no-holes-barred approach, eviscerating criminals with military precision whilst making sure they never get back up. Daredevil, however, beats people to a pulp but leaves them for the police to put behind bars – eventually facing the consequences of their actions. From the scintillating courtroom sequences to thunderous set-pieces, this debate adds new layers to the genre whilst keeping the audience guessing.

Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung) slinks out of the darkness to give our favourite blind lawyer/vigilante, and her old boyfriend, a run for his money. A significant part of the season’s second half, the character is too given an honourable treatment compared to previous iterations (Sorry, Jennifer Garner). Utilising her sex appeal, tenacity, and ferociousness to her advantage, her persona pulls Murdock into a befuddling world of ninjas, scheming villains, and spiritual awakenings. She, balancing out Castle’s impact on the narrative, is a force to be reckoned with and worthy of a spin-off before joining The Defenders.

Most importantly, Cox provides a delightful, multi-layered performance as the Devil (angel) of Hell’s Kitchen. Similarly to Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers/Captain America, the performer creates a unique, nuanced divide between superhero and alter ego. Creating a physical specimen and vulnerable everyday citizen, the creators, writers, directors, and Cox combine to develop an arresting lead character – carrying all 13 episodes with ease. With Murdock facing off against physical threats, Nelson and Page aptly balance the warfare with wit and flair throughout their all-important sub-plots.

Sitting comfortably alongside Season 1 and Jessica Jones, Daredevil – Season 2 is a tight, taut continuation of one of TV’s best shows and the Marvel Television/Cinematic Universe.

Verdict: A major notch above Season 1.

Deadpool Review: Blood-soaked Bro-down


Director: Tim Miller

Writers: Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T. J. Miller

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Release date: February 11th, 2016

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 108 minutes


 

3½/5

Review: Deadpool 

Jessica Jones Season 1 Review: A Small-Screen Marvel


Creator: Melissa Rosenberg

Channel: Netflix

Stars: Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Rachael Taylor, Wil Traval

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Genres: Action, Detective, Drama, Neo-noir, Superhero

Premiere: November 20th, 2015

Country: USA


4/5

Best part: The dynamic performances.

Worst part: Not enough Luke Cage.

In 2015, the Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut showed no sign of slowing down. The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man were fun, edge-of-your-seat thrill-rides performing on their own whilst setting up future installments. In addition, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD gained traction, responded valiantly to the events of the aforementioned blockbusters, and gained a bigger audience. However, the best Marvel properties belonged to Netflix, proving just how far the online streaming service has come this year.

Daredevil Season 1 expertly combined The Dark Knight Trilogy‘s ‘dark and gritty’ crime-thriller style/vision with tension-inducing chills and subdued performances. As The Wire meets Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the series became a binge-watcher’s dream for 13 straight hours. Its follow-up, Jessica Jones, took many significant leaps of faith. The show, pulling an obscure character out of the shadows, sets up its unique tone and establishes itself in the darker New York/MCU world.

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a private investigator with a cynical edge and lust for vengeance. Infidelity and harmful actions are good for business, accentuating her status as one of few effective freelance PI offices left in Manhattan. After putting an end to her superhero career, she leaves her powers to roughing up thugs and lowlifes coming through her door at Alias Investigations. Witnessing university hopeful Hope Shlottmann (Erin Moriarty) murder her own parents, Jones is convinced her supervillainous arch nemesis/ex-boyfriend, Kilgrave (David Tennant), has returned to destroy her.

This mash-up of detective, neo-noir, superhero, and psychological-thriller tropes is one of 2015’s most transformative shows. Developed effectively by Melissa Rosenberg, the series provides a fresh, inspired take on drama narrative and socially relevant themes on screen. The first three episodes (AKA Ladies Night, AKA Crush Syndrome, AKA It’s Called Whiskey), in particular, apply neo-noir’s sickening atmosphere and aesthetic to its arresting character study elements. The show highlights each detail of Jones’ investigation, efficiently setting up the pieces before knocking them down spectacularly.

Jessica Jones, predictably labelled ‘feminist’ by people who don’t know any better, provides balanced versions of both genders. Unlike many superhero films/series’ etc., the female characters are given depth beyond their abilities. Jones is a survivor, brought to her knees by everything and everyone throughout her life. The lead is the series’ best asset – a well-rounded being succumbing to temptation (booze, sex etc.) and emotional connections realistically. On the other side of the conflict, Kilgrave is the MCU’s most enthralling antagonist. As an obsessive ex-boyfriend type, he preys on Jones’ issues (post traumatic stress disorder, assault etc.) with fearsome tenacity. Diverting from the urban, predator-prey dynamic of preceding episodes, AKA You’re A Winner! peels back the layers of Jones and Kilgrave’s pasts.

The supporting characters, throughout the confronting, visceral run, succinctly off-set Jones’ sickening, ever-increasing aura. Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a well-natured, charming character with scores to settle of his own. Sadly, however, after several gruelling twists and turns, the character takes an extended hiatus. Jones’ friend/sidekick Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) is a force of personality, utilising her sarcastic wit and personal quarrels to significant effect. Her on-again/off-again dynamic with Will Simpson (Wil Traval) sizzles during the show’s more intimate moments. Carrie Ann Moss gives a strong turn as the lesbian attorney stuck in Jones’ circle of hell.

Despite the exhaustive number of episodes, Jessica Jones is a detective-thriller and superhero-action smackdown in equal measure. Despite the focus on darkness, violence, and heavy subject matter, the show’s performances, tone, and intricate attention to detail establish its merits as a stand-alone series and extension of the MCU.

Verdict: ‘Dark and gritty’ done right.

Fantastic Four Review: Not So…


Director: Josh Trank

Writers: Josh Trank, Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater

Stars: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell

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Release date: August 7th, 2015

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 100 minutes


 

1½/5

Review: Fantastic Four

Guardians of the Galaxy Review – I Am Groot


Director: James Gunn

Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman

Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel

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Release date: August 1st, 2014

Distributors: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Marvel Studios

Country: UK

Running time: 121 minutes


 

 

 

4½/5

Best part: The dynamic soundtrack.

Worst part: The two-dimensional villains.

All-powerful mega-conglomerate Marvel Studios has, for the past few years, been keeping everything close to the chest. Its mission, to build an intricate cinematic universe whilst entertaining the masses, is worthy of immense critical and commercial acclaim. Unlike most blockbusters, the Iron Man, Thor, Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Avengers tentpoles work as stand-alone adventures and vital instalments. Marvel’s latest effort, Guardians of the Galaxy, fits into this gutsy and entertaining franchise.

Peter Quill/Starlord in action.

Peter Quill/Starlord in action.

Hitting and sticking, this sci-fi epic puts the pedal to the metal from the get-go and refuses to listen to the studio big-wigs. As Marvel’s craziest venture yet, Guardians of the Galaxy is ballsy enough to stick to its overarching plan. Unlike Marvel’s preceding efforts, this movie refuses to stay Earth bound. Here, the narrative and characters reach for the stars and soar into the sky to achieve the nigh-impossible. Thanks to the alluring marketing campaign, its premise is significantly more bizarre and questionable than expected. Shortly after his mother’s death, a young Peter Quill escapes his family’s grasp before being abducted by an unknown entity. The movie then jumps several years, and thirty-something Quill (Chris Pratt), going by “Starlord”, is a lowlife criminal working for himself. Dodging bounty hunters and murderers across the galaxy, his immediate future consists of treasure and loose alien babes. Unsurprisingly, his latest prize, a sphere-like artefact, places him atop the universe’s Most Wanted list. After a tussle between Quill, assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Racoon-like badass Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and tree-like creature Groot (Vin Diesel), our brawlers are thrown into a vicious floating jail.

The Guardians kicking ass!

The Guardians kicking ass!

After a daring escape, aided by Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), these abrasive warriors come together to tackle villainous figures including Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Korath (Djimon Hounsou). Predictably so, comic-book aficionados and giddy cinema-goers define Guardians of the Galaxy‘s set fan-base. Pushing its kooky and intriguing narrative into warp speed, this sci-fi actioner delivers on everything it promises. Director/co-writer James Gunn (Slither, Super) injects his off-kilter style into each scene. From the emotionally resonant prologue (placed in front of Marvel’s logo) onward, the movie delivers a balance of charm and poignancy. Mixing sci-fi, action, and comedy tropes, Marvel latest is even more boisterous and hearty than preceding efforts. Scouring the universe, the movie examines the comic-book series and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe simultaneously. As varying factions and figureheads fight for control, the story etches in several cartoonish heroes and villains. Despite the sequel baiting and distracting contrivances, the goodies (led by the Nova Corps) and the baddies (led by high-ruler Thanos (Josh Brolin)) never distort the narrative. Instead, the pacing and tone establish a Star Wars vibe with hints of Serenity and Indiana Jones. Bolstered by a 70s/80s soundtrack, its nostalgic glow pushes everything along with style and gusto. Venturing into the vast reaches of space, this Star Trek-like space opera connects aliens, humans, and animals together organically.

“I am Groot.” (Groot (Vin Diesel), Guardians of the Galaxy).

Ronan the Accuser

Ronan the Accuser.

Indeed, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s universe-building techniques inject gravitas and awe into its simple-yet-effective plot. With our five leads at each other’s throats, their zany actions and reactions are worth the admission cost. Drifting between expansive star systems and planets, the movie’s production design eclipses that of both Thor instalments. The Knowhere, a mining district built inside a gigantic skull, is a sight to behold. Handling magic and mystery deftly, Marvel’s latest achieves everything Green Lantern failed at. Despite the confusing space-opera/source material jargon, its story beats and character motivations mature naturally throughout. Without becoming a slapstick farce, the comedic jabs craft memorable and applause-worthy moments. Pulling people from different realms together, our five leads’ camaraderie bolsters this inspired instalment. Outshining its set pieces and genre cliches, the quieter moments make for significant strides. Whenever  our characters sit and talk to one another, the movie’s negatives hurriedly dissipate. Graciously, its unique performers elevate certain set pieces and dialogue moments. Pratt, coming off Parks and Recreation and The Lego Movie, excels in his run-and-gun lead role. As the group’s Han Solo, Quill has the attitude, and dance moves, to match Marvel’s other anti-heroes.  Surprisingly, Bautista, Cooper, and Diesel steal the show from one another as the team’s wackiest members. Their foul-mouthed, vengeful characters solidify this sarcastic yet determined ensemble.

From Quill opening credits dance number to the third act’s spaceship showdown, Guardians of the Galaxy takes to shooting first and taking names second. Fuelled by its retro visuals and puffed-up swagger, this sci-fi actioner signifies the start of Marvel’s immense evolution. With Phase 2 coming to a close, this mega-studio is heading in the right direction. The pressure now rests on Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s God of Thunder-sized shoulders. I anticipate a Rocket/Groot/Iron Man team-up flick by 2019.

Verdict: Marvel’s most ambitious and peculiar effort yet!