Thursday, November 3, 2016

"Doctor Strange" (2016)

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton
Written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Rated PG-13 — Superhero violence, language
Running Time: 115 Minutes

Prominent neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is on his way to a fancy speaking engagement when he gets distracted behind the wheel and his car goes off the road. With his hands crushed and suffering debilitating nerve damage, Strange dedicates all his resources to finding new or experimental treatments to regain full use of his hands. With his money running out and his friends abandoning him, he turns in desperation to Nepal to track down a miracle.

In an old monastery, he meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who introduces him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). The Ancient One is a being of great power who reveals to Strange that there is more to the physical world than he could possibly imagine: the realm of mystical energies and sorcerers. She promises to teach Strange the mystic ways to help him regain the use of his hands, and draft him into a secret war to protect the Earth from Dormammu, the demon ruler of the dark dimension.

Dormammu's worshippers, led on Earth by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), steal forbidden rituals from the Ancient One's library, hoping to use them to open a portal to Dormammu's dimension and let it run roughshod over the Earth.

The mighty Marvel machine rolls on! Having given their more recognizable heroes a go (The Avengers) and proving that even little-known properties can go AAA (Guardians of the Galaxy), Marvel is digging deeper into its catalogue of weirdos like... Doctor Strange.

At this point, Marvel Studios knows how to make their movies. Each one of these things is meticulously constructed along the studio's proven guidelines. "Doctor Strange" is no different, for better and for worse.

Let's start with the worse: You've seen this movie before. This is an extremely standard origin story, following every story beat you know by heart now. There are no real surprises here, as Strange goes from powerless to powerful. You'll find all the requisite training sequences, where Strange struggles to understand his newfound abilities and master them, as well as the first battle where he manages to fend off evildoers despite overwhelming odds. When it comes to the plot, everything here is bog-standard.

But this being a Marvel movie, it's executed extremely well and in a breezy and entertaining manner, to help smooth over the fact that it often feels like they just copied new dialogue into the "Iron Man" script.

Other problems: You'll notice I didn't actually name or mention Rachel McAdams' character, Dr. Christine Palmer, in my plot description above. That's because she's almost entirely wasted here and serves little purpose in the narrative except to give Strange a target for his anger and resentment during the early phase of the movie, and then for him to apologize to later for being an epic douche. To the filmmakers' credit, McAdams is never a damsel in distress, so there's that going for it. Otherwise, she could probably be pretty easily removed from this movie and no one would notice.

On the upside, while the story is superbly familiar, this is some of Marvel's wildest, most imaginative and colorful imagery yet. For the first time, a Marvel movie feels like 3D is actually a bonus, with a wonderful sense of depth and dimension. This is, of course, especially apparent during the film's many mystical action sequences in which characters begin to warp reality to use it as a weapon. This is apparent right from the beginning as Swinton's Ancient One attempts to thwart Kaecilius and his followers from stealing powerful spell pages from her library. Buildings and even entire streets are used as weapons, folded in and over themselves to stymy enemy movements or even to entrap or crush them.

Later, these sequences get more elaborate and intense, as the entirety of Manhattan is used to throw Strange and Mordo for a loop. Characters hurl themselves along walls, construct new paths for themselves out of the kaleidoscope pieces of fire escapes and skyscrapers. Gravity shifts on a whim, allowing characters to run above and beneath each other, or plummet down Manhattan avenues.

Visually, there's a whole lot to love in "Doctor Strange." It's a film that enjoys playing with gravity, time and reality itself. It's colorful and weird and wacky and highly enjoyable in this regard.

If you've enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, there's nothing about "Doctor Strange" that will change that for you. There's lots of fun to be had, even if it's a dangerously familiar tale.

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