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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: The Martian

Matt Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars but determined to live in The Martian.

Matt Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars but determined to live in The Martian.

Hard to believe I saw The Martian just two months after it hit theatres. What took me so long? What took me so long to write this review? Anyways I’m glad I finally had the chance.

I’m sure by now most of you have seen the story of how Mark Watney got left behind on Mars. The sandstorm on Mars and the debris that hit him left everyone escaping mistaking him for dead. Mark would then have to survive by growing his own food and creating his own habitat. It would work to his advantage but NASA would eventually get the message he needed to be brought back home. It would take a connection with a mission, sheer determination and camaraderie with his fellow astronauts to bring him back to earth successfully.

The movie is based off the book by Andy Weir. I can’t judge for myself on how the film compares to the book. However I will say this is a very good adaptation of a story of a man and his fight to survive on a strange planet. One thing I will have to say is that even though this is a sci-fi fantasy, the film would still have to be true to fact in a lot of areas. It would have to know Mars’ oxygen levels or lack thereof, temperature levels, climates and terrain and even know how long transportation and even communication between Mars and Earth would take. Today’s audiences aren’t as welcoming towards cheap hypotheses of space like they used to be decades ago. Not only would they need those facts but they would have to be incorporated into the script and made to work into a story that was suspenseful but also entertaining. The Martian succeeds in doing just that and doesn’t lose its comedic edge in the process.

The Martian is a reminder of why films about space travel still fascinate us today. They remind us of why we like to imagine trips to outer space including domains humans have never set foot on. They even capture our intrigue when a mission fails and the astronaut’s lives are at threat. They get us wondering “Do they make it or don’t they?” You may remember how Gravity caught our imaginations just a couple of years ago. Now it’s The Martian with its story of an astronaut trying to stay alive yet eventually return back to earth.

Some may question the mix of humor into the story if it was a smart choice, especially with the inclusion of disco songs Mark hates but keeps him alive.  No doubt it was an entertaining choice as it entertained crowds. Comedy is all hit and miss and I feel it made the right choices in terms of adding in the comedic elements. In terms of drama, it didn’t make the more tense moments of life-or-death too tense for the audience. It kept us wondering and brought our hopes up with each positive moment but the intensity was not all that thick and that’s what made it win with the crowds.

No doubt it took the direction of Ridley Scott and the writing of Drew Goddard to make this film work. Ridley knows how to bring out the best in unique stories and make them win with movie crowds. The story however rested on the shoulders of Matt Damon. His performance where he mixes humor with the will to survive helped the film achieve the charm it needed. Despite Damon owning the movie, it’s not to say supporting performances from Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels Michael Pena and Kate Mara didn’t have their importance. They helped too. Other top elements of the film included the music from Harry Gregson-Williams and the special effects team who were able to re-create life on Mars to a tee.

The Martian is a sci-fi comedy of the best caliber and has the best elements of a ‘popcorn movie.’ This is something only a director like Ridley Scott can pull off well. Very entertaining.

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: Ender’s Game

Asa Butterfield plays child genius Ender Wiggin in the family sci-fi thriller Ender's Game.

Asa Butterfield plays child genius Ender Wiggin in the family sci-fi thriller Ender’s Game.

Very rarely do I go to see a live-action family film nowadays. There isn’t usually one that makes me want to go out and see it. However Ender’s Game was one that caught my eye. It’s based on the novel written by Orson Scott Card.

It’s the future and the Earth is under threat from alien Formics. They’ve already attacked in the year 2086 but their advances were halted by a small reserve force which involved an attack which had commander Mazer Rackham sacrifice himself in the battle to win. The International Fleet or IF was created shortly after to protect the Earth from the Formics.

Years later, IF commanders Colonel Hyrum Graff and Major Gwen Anderson are screening out teenage cadets as part of their next battle. They’re impressed with the intelligence and strategic thinking of cadet Andrew Ender Wiggin both with his playing of virtual games and his ability to deal with rejection in a fake dismissal. Ender is a complex boy. He’s smart as he can deliver what it takes to win virtual games but has a sensitivity as he feels like a misfit because he’s the ‘third born’ and frequently confides with his older sister Valentine. However it’s when Graff and Anderson visit the Wiggin household that things change. They offer him a place in their battle school. It’s after an intimate talk with Graff that Ender accepts because: “it was what he was born for.”

On the trip to the school via the shuttle, Ender and the other recruits or launchies are given lessons of the school by Sargent Dap. Ender further impresses Major Anderson when she asks him to create a mind game for the sake of analyzing recruit’s emotional states. He creates a mouse and giant game where he causes a surprise win to Anderson’s amazement.

The intrigue on Ender continues to grow. Ender is then promoted to the Salamander Army headed by Commander Bonzo Madrid. Bonzo is a fierce trainer with an unlikeable personality. One of his top students, Petra Arkanian, takes a liking to Ender and teaches him how to shoot free time. Bonzo starts a feeling of dislike to Ender especially after he cheats with Petra during a training game and they win with a surprise attack. Ender continues with his mouse mind game where he also has a Formic, an image of his sister, a snake he kills off and his brother in the game. The military are further amazed with Ender and switch him to the Dragon Army. To everyone’s surprise, he defeats the other two army’s including the Salamander Army headed by Bonzo in a weightless battle contest.

Despite Ender amazing the heads of the military, things start to take a turn for the worse. Bonzo is infuriated with Ender after his army loses and challenges him to a fight. Ender seriously injures Bonzo in self-defence leaving Bonzo badly injured enough to return to Earth. The emotional toll weighs in on Ender and demands to be flown back to Earth and leave the army. It’s right after Valentine convinces him to stay and fight that he continues on.

Ender learns of his mission through a travel to a Formic outpost of the IT. It’s there through the image of the deceased Mazer Rackham that he learns of his mission and of his most deadly devise on their ship. Ender then becomes a commander and assembles the best launchies and trainies he’s been working with. They continue training up for a ‘Graduation Day’ exercise. Gaduation Day turns out to be a game but it turns out to be a lot more. After the outcome, everybody is happy with Ender and themselves for what they have done, except Ender. He’s remorseful and it’s only after meeting with one of the Formics in his mind that he makes clear what his next mission is.

The movie is intended to be both a sci-fi action film for the family and the first book of a potential series. The film shows Ender Wiggin as a fighter who triumphs via brain more than brawn. It was once said in a US Marines commercial years ago: “To compete, you have to be strong. To win, you have to be smart.” Ender’s that smart competitor who’s able to make his mind do incredible things even to the point of the supernatural in the virtual world. That was the type of hero Orson Scott Card intended with Ender Wiggin. However Ender is unique in terms of his sensitivity and feeling for others, including his enemies. In fact a unique quote from Ender appears at the beginning of the film: “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” It’s there where we understand Ender Wiggin and how he’s able to do what he does. He’s a very unique protagonist in both how he thinks and how he feels and how someone so young can do all this.

You may remember how back in the summer I talked about big-budget action thrillers losing at the box office. I figured that the fall season would provide a better picture for them. It has been better but the outcome has been better for the more established movie franchises like Riddick, Insidious and Thor. Ender’s Game is a sci-fi thriller that is the first of the trilogy of Ender Wiggin novels. Any hope of future films rode on the success of Ender’s Game. The film debuted at #1 but with a weekend intake of only $27 million, it was questionable whether it would hit its $110 million budget. The latter weeks have shown it wouldn’t as it gained less and less. It now stands at just $55 million. It’s unfortunate that the success didn’t pan out, especially since this is 28 years in the making. However all is not lost. If there are no additional films, it may be turned into a television series.

Harrison Ford did a good job as Colonel Graff, even though I’ve seen him play better and stronger action roles. He shows that even after three decades he can still make the thriller. Viola Davis was probably the best scene stealer as Major Gwen. She showed that she’s able to upstage Harrison at times. Asa Butterfield was also very good as the protagonist Ender Wiggin. Actually he’s a major reason why I saw this. He impressed me in Hugo and I was looking forward to seeing how he would do in Ender’s Game. He did a very good job of playing a child soldier that was both an outside soldier and an inside soldier. Also he was able to give Ender more dimension with his sense of emotions and feelings. Asa helped make Ender a unique character. Ben Kingsley was also good in his role of Mazer but lacked scene-stealing qualities. The young supporting characters were also very well done. Haille Steinfeld made Petra likeable, Abigail Breslin was very convincing as making Valentine the source of Ender’s mental strength and Moises Arias was very successful in making Bonzo dislikeable.

Gavin Hood did a very good job in terms of directing. The screenplay was also done well but I feel the ending could have been done better. His best effort is the South African film Tsotsi which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film but he already has experience in directing sci-fi with directing X-Men: Wolverine. The movie’s qualities that most stand out are its visual effects and the score by Steve Jablonsky. The film did have some controversy as Orson Scott Card’s opposition to the same-sex lifestyle and gay marriage has caused outspoken critics and pundits. Card has defended his views each time. As for my feeling, I feel Card’s opinions should not matter in terms of this film because his opinions are not made present in the film anyways.

Ender’s Game is an impressively smart sci-fi film for families and young adults. It’s a very smart story that’s very well-done. However it does fall prey to the box office because of its lack of buzz and tight competition of other sci-fi releases this November.

Movie Review: Prometheus

Prometheus is a movie many would compare to 1979 Alien, and tightly so. It’s intended to be a prequel to the Alien series despite being released 33 years after and directed by Alien director Ridley Scott. But does it succeed both on its own and as a prequel?

The movie begins with an alien disintegrating after drinking a liquid. A biogenetic reaction occurs as his remains fall into a waterfall. In the meantime a trip to a distant moon is planned after an archeological discovery in Scotland of a star map connecting several unconnected ancient cultures. The archeologists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, interpret it as humanity’s ‘forerunners’ or ‘engineers’. The trip to that moon is a four-year trip via a spacecraft called ‘The Prometheus’ though Weyland Corporations monitored by a human-like android named David and instructed to find and study ‘the Engineers’.

Upon arriving on the moon they find many key artifacts as well as alien bodies and assume the alien Engineers are extinct. One of the artifacts, cylinders, leaks a dark liquid which David and Holloway later drink. Meanwhile a storm causes many to return to the stranded ship and Millburn and Fifield stranded in the structure the ship is resting by. Meanwhile in the structure, snake-like creatures start acting up, killing Millburn and melting Fifield’s helmet. After the others discover Fifield and Millburn’s body, David finds a control room with evidence of a surviving Engineer and a star map highlighting Earth. The black liquid Holloway drank now starts to attack his body badly enough for mission director Vickers to refuse him back on the ship and has his body burned. Shaw discovers she’s pregnant with an alien baby and attempts to abort it herself.

As the elder Weyland prepares to depart the planet on his craft, a mutated Fifield attacks and kills several crew members before he himself is killed. We learn the structure was part of a base that lost control because of the dark liquid. After learning the structure is part of a spacecraft, the crew run to an Engineer for help only for the Engineer to kill crew members, decapitate David and take control of the spaceship only to crash it. The crash prevents the Engineer from releasing any of the liquid on Earth. Even as Shaw gets away in a lifeboat, she learns that the Engineer survived the crash and her aborted alien baby is alive and grew to full-size. The departure of Shaw and David, whose head is still active after decapitation, won’t come without a fight and it leaves an ending that either sets up for a prequel or sets up for the actual Alien.

What should be noted is that Scott had planned as far back as 2002 in creating a prequel to Alien. However it was sidelined as Alien vs. Predator came up and would be released in 2004. Interest in this wouldn’t resume until 2009. One of the risks of prequels is that those who are familiar with the movie series will have expectations of it. Also there are those moviegoers who are unfamiliar with the series and just see the movie for what it is. Prometheus won’t answer all the big questions Alien fans will give but it will give some satisfaction to fans of Alien as well as thrill the unfamiliar moviegoers. Ridley Scott had a big task on his hand when he was to make a prequel to his famous Alien movie. He may not have succeeded completely but he did a respectable job of his own in this project.

Although the acting was mostly unspectacular as is to be expected in a SciFi movie, it was Michael Fassbender’s performance of android David that stood out as the best effort. Noomi Rapace may have given a good acting performance, if not great, but gave a good job at delivering a strong and determined, albeit vulnerable, heroine. The script was good but it still had a lot of predictable and unresolved plot elements and as I said before, it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered to fans of Alien. As expected in a SciFi movie, its best qualities were the visual effects and the set designs. It did an excellent job of recreating a fictional planet with excellent special effects, especially the alien effects. The score by Marc Streitenfeld also added to the drama of the movie.

Prometheus did have a lot of expectations put on it. Although it didn’t succeed at achieving them all, it still made for a good thriller of a movie. Whether there will be another prequel or not still remains in question.