Doctor Strange ****

doctor-strange

Any Cumberb*tch could have told you their idol Benedict Cumberbatch was on a higher spiritual level a long time ago. Indeed, the actor is famous for playing cerebral, influential men, so it’s no stretch of the imagination to find him a Marvel hit in the role of Doctor Strange.

When brilliant neurosurgen Dr Stephen Strange awakes from a serious car accident without the full use of his hands, he tries to find every means possible to recover, even pushing away support from fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), an old flame. His inability to accept his current predicament leads him on a journey to Nepal to find ‘The Ancient one’ (Tilda Swinton) who has helped another man make a full recovery.

As a man of science Strange finds it hard to take her advice and is skepitcal about the ‘magic’ of the mystic arts she performs. Little does Strange know that this newfound power will not only save his life, but also the whole world’s from the dark forces set to crush and consume Earth, under the command of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of The Ancient One.

Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson and team have brought the intriguing Steve Ditko character to life, helped by some excellent casting in Cumberbatch who is as egotistical and narcissistic in the role as he is very funny. There is a superb script to enjoy and some genuinely hilarious retorts, as Strange tries to navigate this magical new world with sarcasm and scientific doubt.

Swinton adds the gravitas required for a key spiritual teacher and is faultless as she is vulnerable in the role – and equally amusing. However, it’s Strange’s quips at the expense of po-faced librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) that steal the main laughs – the running joke being that the ex-surgeon thinks he is a funny man when clearly he is an acquired taste.

McAdams also gets in on the laughs to relieve her character’s tense interactions with ‘spiritual’ Strange upon his return, and can be counted on for a solid performance in everything she does. There is also an assured turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, another pupil who rejects the use of the dark powers in healing others.

Hannibal actor Mikkelsen fails to disappoint yet again as the bad guy, with his steely gaze intact and laudable focus on the mission. The film’s fight scenes are also very well choreographed, with a good balance between action and character development throughout.

Derrickson’s mind/eye-bending set, like something from Christopher Nolan‘s Inception, keeps the fantasy morphing and fresh as we navigate it’s Esher-like space before entering another plane. The effects are highly impressive, as is the creativity poured into them – just witness skeptic Strange’s first experience through the astral plane, which is like riding a psychedelic rollercoaster.

Doctor Strange makes for a promising entry into the Marvel world for the uninitiated – and stay to the very end of the credits for both sneak peaks of what’s to come, involving other Marvel heroes. Some of the slower parts of the film go unnoticed because Cumberbatch always commands a presence and is immensely enthralling to watch.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Ouija: Origin of Evil ***

ouija

Never mind the creepy board that allegedly can communicate with the departed, trying to figure out who is alive and who is technically ‘dead’ in the last part of Ouija: Origin of Evil is confusing and consuming enough for anyone watching – if you haven’t seen the 2014 film, Ouija, that is.

Also, let’s face it; self-assured children are always a tad creepy too, like cute Doris Zander, played here by Lulu Wilson, who channels something demonic through her tiny frame. Wilson is quite brilliant in co-writer-director Mike Flanagan‘s new film, and rather than relying on effects, it’s actually Wilson who carries many scenes to their devilish end.

It’s 1965 in LA, and widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is trying to keep a roof over Doris’s and older teenage daughter Lina’s (Annalise Basso) heads by practicing mediumship. Alice and the girls use tricks of the trade to complete the deception that spirits are talking to them. After buying a ‘new prop’, an Ouija board, little Doris starts acting strangely and hearing the dead, including their dearly departed father. However, something more sinister is trying to use Doris as a vessel to do its dirty work.

There are all the usual horror tropes, complete with gloomy, haunted house set, but something more self-assertive this time around. There is a mockery of the supernatural coupled with a degree of respect that Flanagan gives nods to in the script. The fact his characters openly ‘joke’ about it in the dialogue brings light relief too. This film takes itself less seriously than the 2014 film did.

What it does not poke fun at is grief, which plays a big factor. It’s clear the Zanders are struggling to cope with that ‘hole’ and that empathy at their loss brings you right onto their side and condones what they are doing to survive. However, we don’t get a sense of Alice’s consuming madness, mentioned in the first film by a grown-up Lina (played by Lin Shaye). That’s probably because things get a little crazy and confusing at the end – all we know is the men are expendable in the process. This is about female power.

Flanagan’s horror is not so much about the special effects rather than the characters, relying on old-school scares. There is also an assumption that the audience has prior knowledge of Ouija and its implied effects. With that pre-planted, it doesn’t take much of the imagination to let events run organically, before the effects kick in – it’s just events get very complex.

Still, Ouija: Origin of Evil has enough eyeball rolling and gymnastics to satisfy the horror fan. Of course the house has something lurking in the basement – wouldn’t be a demonic fest without it. The performances make it stand out though, and enough triggers to our imagination to make it an effective watch, especially approaching Halloween.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Inferno **

inferno

There is never a terrible Tom Hanks film, only one less satisfying than the other. Inferno is one such Hanks title. It is arguable just how much more mileage director Ron Howard can get out of the Dan Brown ‘Robert Langdon’ saga about symbolism, religion and cult, but you can’t blame him for trying with Inferno. Afterall, these books are made for big screen translation.

The sequel to The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, Inferno starts with Harvard University professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) waking up in a hospital room in Florence, Italy, with no memory of what has transpired over the last few days. He is being plagued with visions of a Hell-like Earth. Dr Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) tells him he has been suffering from amnesia after a bullet to the head. After an attempt on his life on the ward, Langdon and Brooks go on the run to find answers when they discover a ‘Faraday pointer’ with an image of Dante’s Inferno in Langdon’s personal belongings.

Hanks does not have to do much for his fee here, short of portraying his trademark ‘bemused face’ and getting a little exercise. David Koepp‘s script is very by the book, almost a little too so, merely illustrating the Brown text like an visual aid. Even the twist fails to raise excitement levels, and by the time we get to the climax – to save the world (again) – there is little appetite. We are just glad to see Hanks – or Langdon – safe and sound.

The trouble with translating any book from a series is there are always ones less compelling, but like all series, they need to be done to complete the filmic archive. Inferno has some great puzzles and culture to learn about – take Dante, for example. However, like numerous action thrillers of recent times, it just feels like watching a less enthralling ‘travel blog’, even with Hanks at the helm.

We all like a good mystery and chase, it’s just there is little imagination injected into Inferno, and a distinct lack of fear of the unknown that the other Brown books pedal so well. The spread of a virus should strike the fear of God into all – we just don’t get that sense of scale or impending doom in this. That’s probably because we’re being distracted by sightseeing and culture. Not a bad thing though.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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War on Everyone ****

war-on-everyone

Casual disregard at the extraordinary is the name of the game of writer-director John Michael McDonagh‘s black, black 70s-themed cop thriller comedy, War on Everyone, starring unlikely pairing, Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña as corrupt coppers in crime.

It’s Tarantino-esque twitterings between its leads while chaos ensues feels less than fresh. However, as much as Peña has earned his stripes playing hispanic cop roles on screen (take Mike in End of Watch), it’s seeing him bounce off man-tower Skarsgård’s loser character Terry in this that’s fascinating to watch.

Set in New Mexico, to cops, Terry and Bob (Peña) set out to blackmail and frame every criminal they encounter – police pensions (as we are always told) never really pay. Things get sinister as they try to fry a bigger fish. But just who should be afraid of who?

McDonagh’s film is ode to the 70s cop thriller era, with a broody and strikingly handsome Skarsgård – even when mashed up – evoking this decade’s style in full spirit. He also has the muscle car that refuses to ‘die’, just like a trusty petrol steed. Peña is the family-man cop again, but also the brains behind the operation – a slight twist to his usual police character. The thrill is not just the excellent and free-flowing rapport the pair has, but also being kept on tender hooks as to when the pair’s luck will finally run out.

The blatant ‘F* You’ sentiment is beautifully balanced throughout with the smaller things in life that are important. It’s like there is a damaged moral compass still guiding both, even when they are doing something wrong. Keeps us on their side throughout. However, this is no ‘New Mexico Robin Hood’ tale – this pair are robbing for their own gain. Things change though, when some of the ‘victims’ them encounter along the way change their perception for the better. The very end scene is really unexpected from where the film first starts. This is what is oddly ‘different’ about it compared with the usual damaged cop affair. There is a justice of sorts that wins our favour.

War on Everyone beats with the blackest of hearts, with good and irony born out of evil. The buddy journey with Skarsgård and Peña is an incredibly satisfying one too.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Girl on the Train ***

the-girl-on-the-train-main-quad

Apparently Emily Blunt is far too attractive (and slim) to be author Paula Hawkins‘s alcoholic anti-heroine Rachel, the pickled protagonist of bestseller The Girl on the Train. The gripping tale is also set in upstate New York, rather than London that has irked some fans of the novel.

The fact is, this twisty-turny mystery drama of love, heartache, deceit and murder could be transferred to anywhere in the world – hence the original text’s clear catch. It’s also a very compelling modern story of female struggle. All three women in the tale – Rachel, Anna (now married to Rachel’s ex and living in the former martial home, played by Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (the beautiful girl next door to Anna who goes missing, played by Haley Bennett) – are battling demons, even in the most idyllic of surroundings, but share a common thread. It’s this journey of discovery that director Nate Taylor takes us on, and Secretary scriptwriter Erin Cressida Wilson cleverly relays through plot backtracks and the like.

The gripping nature of the novel is not altogether lost on film. Indeed, getting your head around the new setting takes a bit of time. Blunt is so curiously ‘haunting looking’ that she instantly carries our interest on her obsessive train journeys each day, making us sympathise, dislike then empathise once again. She plays the perfect flawed character, both physically and mentally in this. Who cares about her look? What does an ‘alcoholic’ actually look like anyway? It is quite an accomplished performance for the Brit actress who remains British in this, as to not totally alienate Hawkins fans.

The apparent difference is how ‘tame’ Taylor’s interpretation is – until the end part of the film when the explanantions and replays flow forth, as do the ugly episodes. It’s here that Justin Theroux as Rachel’s ex and Anna’s hubby really injects the malevolence. In opting not to go too sinister though, Taylor has sanitized events somewhat when a more alarming approach was needed to do justice to Hawkins’s work. The surroundings and ‘Nancy Meyers home interiors’ do not create enough foreboding, just infer something is rotten at the core. It is this malice that Taylor misses.

The Girl on the Train can be enjoyed as it stands, with Blunt doing justice to Rachel being the most important thing. It’s just fans might feel out of sorts and less than freaked out than when they read the book.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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