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Movie Review: Doctor Strange

strange

Benedict Cumberbatch brings Doctor Strange to the big screen with his superpowers and fire magic.

I’ll admit I had my review of Doctor Strange started back when I saw it in November: Election Day to be exact. The reason for its late publish has a lot to do with my lack of ambition. Paying attention to my hit statistics and seeing how 2016 gave me my lowest annual hit stats since 2011 kept me from publishing. However the recent upswing of hits in January rejuvenated my blogging energy and I can finally publish my review!

Dr. Strange is not a new Marvel superhero. He first appeared in a 1963 addition of Strange Tales created to bring a different type of character and themes of mysticism to comics. It wasn’t completely welcome during its early years as some people thought those at Marvel comics must be on some kind of drugs. Dr. Strange would continue to have his own comic series for decades until the early 2000’s. Then he was placed as a supporting character in comic books of The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers. Dr. Strange has been able to reclaim his own at the start of this decade.

Marvel faced a huge task in bringing a superhero most people are unfamiliar with and making them a household name. They’ve done it before, with The Guardians Of The Galaxy being the most recent example. However it’s still a case of hit-and-miss as last year Ant-Man didn’t get the success most were hoping for. 2016 has been a good but complex year for the Marvel studios. Their latest X-Men movie didn’t go off so well. Captain America: Civil War was a hit but it didn’t have the same muscle as past Captain America movies. Deadpool was a big hit, especially as an R-rated movie about an anti-hero, but Marvel still wants to excel in creating superheroes, especially in a family-friendly format.

Now in order to make Doctor Strange come alive on the big screen, Marvel had to create the right story. This is the first Doctor Strange movie so the origin is a definite must. Also a must is Stephen Strange’s personality as the surgeon who lives for the fame but is given a reality check after the car accident and subsequent adoption of a superhero persona. In addition, morals are necessary for superhero movies. It’s like my brother-in-law said today’s people are tired out with life. People want entertainment that gives us heroes to look up. I agree. Despite the onslaught of Deadpool, Suicide Squad and Sausage Party, people welcome heroes and are comfortable with seeing morals redeemed. It’s not like the 90’s where we all has an insatiable appetite for entertainment that was ruthless, obnoxious and appeared to be an artistic middle-finger.

However there were two major things needed to make Doctor Strange take off. The first was Benedict Cumberbatch had to make the character of Doctor Strange work. Cumberbatch had to be able to portray Doctor Strange’s pre-accident arrogance well and to make his change in personality transfer successfully. Cumberbatch was very good in portraying the character. The other major thing needed most for this movie is top-of-the-line visual effects. Already Doctor Strange’s unique superpowers mostly involve the use of pyrotechnics. They had to look like the magic they are. The shifts from one world to the next would also require top-of-the-line visual effects. If you saw the movie yourself, I’m sure you would also be dazzled by the effects of the film from the pyrotechnics to the various worlds to the freezing of time.

Although Cumberbatch’s acting and the visual effects were the highlights of the movie, it had a lot of other ingredients responsible for its success. Scott Derrickson did a very good job of directing. Derrickson has developed a reputation with directing and writing sci-fi movies in the past and he was the right man for the job here. The script he co-wrote with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill also had to be very good because this was one superhero movie that was not too heavy on the action and placed more emphasis on the story, putting the thriller emphasis more on the slow intensity of the moment. It even included some humor which Marvel likes to include in the first movie of one of their superheroes. They succeeded in accomplishing that. The supporting acting performances like Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mentoring Karl Mordo, Benedict Wong as a non-stereotypical Asian martial arts master, Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One also mentoring Strange, and Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, the woman who gives Stephen Strange his reality check, also added to the strength to the story. The music from Michael Giacchino also fit the film and its various moments well.

Doctor Strange was released at the right time. It was released in November when movie crowds are starting to grow again right after the end of the summer season. Usually November is the biggest movie month outside the summer. People are used to settling back to their routines and they can now go out for enjoyment. Dr. Strange won its opening weekend with a draw of $88 million and remained on top for another week despite challenges from Trolls and Arrival. Even after facing rivalry from the following weeks with new releases like Fantastic Beasts and Moana, Doctor Strange did strong spending seven weeks in the box office Top 10 and grossing $231.6 million in North America and almost $665 million worldwide. As the Oscar nominations have approached, its visual effects were nominated. If you remember the effects, you too would think they were some of the best of the year.

As for a possible Doctor Strange sequel, Derrickson talked of a sequel even a month before its release. He mentioned he had fun with the character. The success of it is the perfect green light for a future sequel.

Doctor Strange is the biggest debut movie for a superhero since the Guardians Of The Galaxy. In a year that was a bit of a struggle for Marvel, it delivered in entertainment and thrills.

Movie Review: Black Mass

Johnny Depp is unrecognizable as James 'Whitey' Bulger in Black Mass.

Johnny Depp is unrecognizable as James ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass.

DISCLAIMER: Okay, I know I’m late in reviewing a lot of movies, including this one. I’m hoping to do some catching up in this time. So please bear with me.

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is a man of infamy. Black Mass is a movie that attempts to reveal what type of person Bulger was and how he was able to get away with what he did all this time.

It’s 1975. The streets of South Boston are ruled by James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and his Irish-American Winter Hill Gang with Stephen Flemmi as his right-hand man, Kevin Weeks as his rising rookie and Johnny Martorano as his merciless hitman. However it’s rivaled by the Angiullo brothers who have ties to the New England Mafia family.

In the middle of this, former FBI Agent John Connolly returns to Boston in hopes of stopping the Angiullo brothers and does the tricky task of trying to get Whitey’s help to do so. Besides Whitey and brother Billy Bulger, who’s the president of the Massachusetts State Senate, are childhood friends. At first, Whitey is reluctant to be an informant but agrees after one of his Winter Hill Gang members is gunned down.

No kidding having Whitey as an informant for an FBI agent is touchy stuff and it even causes suspicion from Connolly’s boss. However it becomes a case where Bulger is the one pulling Connolly’s strings as he uses Connolly’s ‘protection’ for covering his crimes. Whitey becomes more violent after his six year-old son dies of an allergic reaction to aspirin. He even gains more success in achieving FBI control in terms of trying to down the Angiullos. Connolly however becomes more attached to Whitey which interferes with his marriage.

However the bond between Bulger and Connolly reach a turning point as Whitey orders one of his men to kill two men associated with a scheme Whitey was to profit over. One man in whitey’s ring, Brian Halloran, comes across as untrustworthy and senses him to be a possible rat. Fearing for his life, Halloran goes to the FBI for help but to no avail. Connolly informs Whitey of Halloran’s sayings and Halloran is killed.

Bulger’s lust for blood and his own menacing behavior only grow over time and it leads to a downfall in his relationship with Connolly. Over time a new district attorney, Fred Wyshak, is hired in Boston. Despite Connolly’s attempt to befriend the ‘bulldog’ attorney, Wyshak refuses and attempts to have Bulger arrested. Eventually the secrets are unraveled thanks to the help of the Boston Globe which leads to the arrests of Connolly and Bulger’s three other men. Bulger however is successful in avoiding arrest of his own however he would be arrested in 2011 after 16 years ‘on the run.’

I’m sure what most people would be interested in seeing when they watch this film is yet another character played by Johnny Depp. The weird thing is about how unrecognizable he comes across with his balding hair and blue eyes. However I’m sure he was chosen because of how he could embody the character of Whitey with his criminal mentality and his personal demons both on the street and within himself. Mind you Whitey was quite the character in real life to give himself his own exile before ultimately being brought to justice only as he was in his 80’s. Some may find Johnny’s hair and make-up rather distracting but it doesn’t take away from the story.

This is a story of intrigue. Those who know the story of Whitey Bulger, or even those who only know the name but not the whole story, will take an interest in why Whitey carried this all out and why an FBI agent was willing to assist. No doubt the story is mainly about Whitey. However the story is about Connolly too. It makes one wonder why a childhood friend would be so loyal to the point he’d be willing to go against his job in order to help him out despite the fact he’s carrying out such hideous crimes. No doubt the theme of loyalty is very present in the film as it is a common fact that loyalty to family and friends is something valued greatly in Boston. The theme of loyalty comes to the point where we see a scene of Bulger on the run but not before thanking Billy just before he and the other men are sentenced.

The make-up of Depp as Bulger may get a lot of attention but the highlight of the film was his performance of a man who is smart but troubled and very easy to infuriate. Depp also did a good job of conveying Bulger’s growing anger and personal motives in his carrying out in the crime activities but he also did a good job in showcasing Whitey’s mind in why Bulger felt it was right in doing all these hideous crimes and why he needed his men to carry it out and an FBI to be ahead of the game. Even showing how the accidental death of his son would be the turning point in Bulger and his lust for control and vengeance adds to the story and the character. The film rested predominantly on the story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger but it was Depp’s ability to show Whitey the person that made the story work at its best.

Sure, Johnny Depp carried the film but the film did feature other good supporting performances as well like that of Joel Edgerton as Connolly whose loyalty is questioned, Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy. The performances of the wives caught in the middle–Erica McDermott as Mary Bulger and Julianne Nicholson as Marianne Connolly– added to the human element of the story and kept it from being your typical hard-story crime drama.

This actually Scott Cooper’s third film as a director. The former actor’s best film making feat up to now has been Crazy Heart about a faded country star on a comeback. I don’t know if it’s as good as Crazy Heart but this is a very good film done by Cooper and is definitely his commercial breakthrough. Writers Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk did a good job of keeping it from being your typical mob-leader story.

Black Mass isn’t simply about an infamous crime leader. It’s also about the codes of loyalty some people would do for their friends, even if it meant violating their duties as an FBI. Very insightful and full of intense moments.

Movie Review: Twelve Years A Slave

Chiwetel Ejoifor (right) recreates Solomon Northup's slavery expereince with brutal honsety in Twelve Years A Slave.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (right) recreates Solomon Northup’s slavery experience with brutal honesty in the film adaptation of Twelve Years A Slave.

Twelve Years A Slave is a landmark book for what it helped to overthrow. Adapting it to the big screen is a new challenge. Did the attempt from British director Steve McQueen work?

The movie begins with Solomon Northup in captivity. However it flashes back to when he lived as a free man in a town in New York. New York was a free state during the days of slavery and blacks were free even to the point where they could be businessmen. However he was tricked during a trip one day by slavetraders into touring with the circus. He was drunk that night and the following morning he finds himself chained to a floor and beaten. He was forced through brutal punishment to accept the name Platt and was sold in New Orleans to plantation owner William Ford.

His first experiences as a slave were not bad under Ford. Ford actually treats him with enough respect for Northup to give him a violin in gratitude. However things change when his boss becomes carpenter John Tibeats. Tibeats is terrible as he mocks all his slaves but takes a special dislike to Northup. Tensions go from Tibeats harassing Northup to the two fighting to Tibeats getting his men to hang Northup. Ford notices this and sells Northup away from Tibeats to cotton planter Edwin Epps.

Both Ford and Northup know Epps is cruel to his slaves and believes his right to be cruel to them is in the Bible. Northup insists to Ford that he’s a free man but Ford believes it’s not for him to say because he has a debt to pay. Epps places a demand on all his slaves they pick 200 pounds of cotton a day or be whipped. Throughout his stay, he is subject to brutal treatment from the Eppses and even a plague of the cotton worm where he and the other slaves are sent away to a temporary field. He is even betrayed in his attempts to freedom and has his letter to New York burned by Epps.

Meanwhile Epps is observant to the other brutality going on. Most notably to the female slave Patsey. She is excellent at picking cotton but has caught the jealous of Edwin Epps’ wife who repeatedly beats her. Edwin himself rapes her repeatedly and worsens over time. Patsey’s mental condition worsens to the point where she wants a suicide and even welcomes a whipping from Solomon ordered by Mistress Epps.

There is a ray of hope as Northup works construction along with a Canadian named Bass. Northup knows of Bass’ opposition to slavery by how much it disgusts Edwin Epps. Northup confides to Bass of his experiences. Northup again attempts a letter to pass on but Bass agrees to do so despite that being a risk to his life. The movie ends on a bittersweet positive note and provides information on what happened after the novel was published.

I’ll admit I’ve never read the actual book ‘Twelve Years A Slave.’ Nevertheless I consider it an accomplishment to bring it to the big screen for the first time. It gave an excellent depiction of the horrors and brutalities the slaves went through during the times of slavery. Those who don’t know all the details of what was all involved with slavery other than simply owning black people don’t know all the details. The movie in itself was a recreation of the slave life Northup experienced. This is a life that Northup experienced and witnessed and was a life with thousands or even millions of slaves experienced in the United States. It will shed quite a light and will give all the reason why slavery had to be ended. It will also surprise you with the fact that Solomon was one of the few slaves to escape to freedom. It will even cause you to think of the slaves that weren’t lucky enough to be free.

One thing that made me question was the state of slavery laws at the time. I may be Canadian but I knew of the Dred Scott Decision that had a bearing to the Civil War and the eventual end of slavery. What surprised me is that Northup was a free man living in New York State when he was kidnapped and sold off to Southern slave owners. That had me thinking there must have been some laws against kidnappings and even selling of African Americans from free states. I’m actually surprised to see that kidnappings of free black people by Southern slave traders happened back then. Makes me wonder if there were those that unlike Northup never got their freedom back.

Another thing that caught my attention was the scene where Edwin Epps whips Solomon mercilessly. A white man tries to stop him but he rejects, saying; “he’s my property.” It’s a reminder of the reason why African-American slaves were treated so abhorrently. The white owners looked at them as property that they can do whatever they wanted to them. They could whip them all they wanted or even kill them. They could even be raped in the case of Patsey. None of it would matter because they weren’t considered people. They were considered ‘property.’ And one thing that will strike you once you leave the theatre was how much the Southern states treasured slavery. This was something they valued to the point that when it became clear slavery would end in the United States, they declared their own nation: The Confederate States of America. They would even fight a brutal Civil War over four years with hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed for the sake of keeping their slavery, in which they’d eventually lose. Really makes you think.

The biggest accolade for the efforts given to the film have to be given to director Steve McQueen. Steve is actually a mostly unknown director in the past who had previously directed two previous feature-length films and 23 shorts. Watching Twelve Years A Slave will cause many including myself not to believe this is only his third feature-length. This is excellent and impressive. He did an excellent job of recreating the story and also bringing out excellent performances of actors famous, well-accomplished and those short on experience. What’s also surprising is that Steve McQueen is not African-American but British of Grenadian descent. I too find it surprising that it’s a black British director that has best depicted American slavery to the big screen. He already looks poised to become the third black director to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Not even Spike Lee was nominated in that category. The big buzz is will he win? If he does, he’ll be the first black director to do so.

The acting was also excellent. Chiwetel Ejiofor was excellent as Solomon Northup. It was not only of what he said and what he did but also what he witnessed that made his performance of Solomon. Supporting performances were also excellent too. Lupita Nyong’o was the one that stood the most out as Patsey: a slave that’s as tortured inside as outside. This is actually Lupita’s feature-length film debut. Excellent work. Michael Fassbender was also excellent as Edwin Epps. His jerk attitude made him that hateable. Sarah Paulson was also excellent as Mistress Epps. Even though her role didn’t have as much dimension as Edwin, she was just as hateable. Both made it look like the Eppses had a lust for blood and abuse. Even the performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Paul Dano added to the film.

John Ridley did an excellent job of adapting Northup’s biography to the big screen. This is surprising as Ridley has more of a reputation for writing for television comedy. However he did write the story for 1999’s Three Kings. This was an excellent job for him. Sean Bobbitt did an excellent job of cinematography and Hans Zimmer did a great job for composing original music.

Twelve Years A Slave is an accomplishment of a film. An accomplishment in both acting and directing. The story may be too unwatchable for some but its brutal honesty is its best quality and help make it one of the best films of 2013.

Pope Benedict XVI: 21st Century Radical

Pope Benedict XVI: 21st Century Radical

One thing about the Easter holidays is that there’s often stories on magazines focusing on Christianity, Churches, Jesus or other Bible figures.  The Pope also becomes subject of cover stories around Easter time. This Easter, there were a lot of good reasons to pay attention to the Pope and the Church, especially this Easter. This also comes to light as April 16th was Pope Benedict’s 84th birthday.

Joseph Ratzinger has been with the Vatican since 1981 when he was voted Cardinal-Prefect for Pope John Paul II. After John Paul’s death, he has led the Catholic Church as Pope Benedict for six years. He has made a lot of news over the years on the actions he’s done and the responses to issues he’s spoken out about. The responses have differed. Some have welcomed his views and his actions. Others are unhappy or even outraged. Even though he is an interim Pope, he has already made his own legacy in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

This Easter weekend, he did something unique for a Pope. On Good Friday, he hosted an international televised dialogue where he answered questions written to the Vatican. Of 3000, he answered seven. This was done so on an Italian television show In His Image which was taped a week earlier.

One question was from a 7 year-old Japanese girl Elena. She asked him to explain the suffering in her country ever since the March earthquake and tsunami. His response: “I ask myself the same question: Why is it this way? Why do you have to suffer so much while others live in ease? And we do not have the answers, but we know that Jesus suffered as you do, an innocent.” He went on to give words of comfort: “even if we are still sad, God is by your side.”

Other questions he asked included one from an Italian man of what Jesus did in between the time of his crucifixion and resurrection. His answer: “The descent of Jesus’ soul should not be imagined as a geographical or spatial trip, from one continent to another. It is the soul’s journey.” An Italian woman asked of the soul of her son who has been in a coma for two years:  “The situation . . . is like that of a guitar whose strings have been broken and therefore can no longer play . . . The soul cannot be heard, but it remains within.” A woman from the Ivory Coast asked of the violence that’s tearing her country apart: “Violence never comes from God, never helps bring anything good . . . The only path is to renounce violence, to begin anew with dialogue.”

This is a break from the traditional or expected norm for the Pope. It’s a common belief that the Pope preaches from the pulpit but has no clue of what’s going on in the real world. If that interview has proven something, it’s that the Pope is listening and he is aware of the situations around the world and of people’s concerns. He’s also willing to give answers. Last year, we saw an example of his response to sexual abuse scandal by setting up a council dedicated to the scandal. This year’s example of how he’s willing to answer questions for an Italian television show demonstrated how Pope Benedict is willing to go to connect people with the answers of the Church. This factor is enough to consider Pope Benedict a radical of the Catholic Church.

We shouldn’t forget that during the reign of Pope John Paul II, John Paul came to Benedict for advise and speeches back when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. It was because of this that he was heavily expected to be elected Pope after the death of John Paul II. Pope Benedict knew what the job of being Pope was long before he took to the throne. Despite what one believes, he is to represent the moral voice of the Roman Catholic Church to its 1.2 billion followers. He can’t simply ‘go with the times’ or ‘get with the program’ and say ‘yes’ to what is already deemed sin in the Bible. In fact many faithful admire how the Pope is refusing to bless popular sins. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that the Church now has a ‘counterculture’ status: “Jesus stood in opposition to the world, in opposition to culture and society. It’s a good thing the Church is against the world.” This is enough to label Pope Benedict a radical of the times.

This is one of the challenges of the Church and of Pope Benedict. He knows that the Catholic Church has to be an example of God’s love. He also knows that the Church has to be a strong moral voice to its followers and condemn sinful acts. Finding a balance between the two is the hard part. This is not the only balancing act Pope Benedict has been trying to do. Another is trying to bring back a lot of common traits of the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council from fifty years ago. One of which was encouraging a return to the Latin Mass. He knows how a lot of Catholics left when the Latin Mass was dropped. He also is taking into account the Traditional Catholics that separated themselves from the Vatican after the Council and consider the Church false and the seat of the Pope vacant.

However the biggest surprise I received in terms of the press’ attitutes towards Pope Benedict came in an Article from Maclean’s magazine. It asked “Is The Pope Catholic?” It gave account to a lot of surprising things Pope Benedict has done over his reign and puts them into question. MacLean’s has even highlighted some of his questionable sayings:

From inflaming the Islamic world by quoting medieval anti-Muhammad remarks to welcoming disaffected Anglicans into the Roman fold, becoming personally embroiled in the clerical sex-abuse scandal, endorsing the (sometimes) use of condoms, writing a passage in his newest book exonerating Jews from the charge of killing Christ, and a host of less headline-grabbing initiatives (including a casual acceptance of the theory of evolution).

This was brought to the attention by a book by Canadian author Michael Coren entitled Why Catholics Are Right. Coren defends the Church and Pope Benedict’s actions in the book. However it’s also highlighted that the top concern of Pope Benedict is the spiritual state of Europe. There’s no question that the secularizing of European society has upset Benedict a great deal and he wants Europe to see that the Church has reason in society. He also wants to see Europe return to the Church-based values that helped shaped the continent for centuries. Only time will tell if it does or not.

Interesting the quote above mentions the ‘condom use’ part. Many remember how Pope Benedict mentioned that condom use is justifiable in some cases, like sex with a prostitute. Although it created a lot of news the world over, one thing that was overlooked that that sex with a prostitute remains a mortal sin, condom or no condom.

As Easter passes, the Church will experience another year. As the world becomes more secularized, Pope Benedict carries the Church and its moral voice on his shoulders. Some will welcome what he has to say while some will question and others will be outraged. Nevertheless, the Church has to stand firm on its morals as it carries the conscience of the Church’s 1.2 billion believers. Pope Benedict knows it and he’s ready to meet the challenge.

WORKS CITED:

MACLEAN’S: Is The Pope Catholic?. Macleans.ca. Author: Brian Bethune. 2011. Rogers Media Inc.<http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/04/18/rebel-with-a-cross/>

NEW YORK POST: Pope Benedict Answers Questions On TV On Good Friday.NYPost.com. Author: Andy Soltis.2011. NYP Holdings, Inc. <http://www.nypost.com/p/news/international/good_fri_popecast_bXYW6mxE0djUeun3iQ4j5K>