NOVEMBER MOVIE REVIEW SHORTS

DR. STRANGE **

Based on yet another Marvel Comic character, this takes that film universe in a decidedly hard sci-fi direction (as opposed to its more space opera/fantasy characters) with uneven results.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the arrogant, self-aggrandizing Doctor Steven Strange, a brilliant surgeon known for his successes where many others have failed.  He’s the rock star of surgeons and lives like one, shining on his on-again, off-again colleague and love interest Christine (Rachel McAdams), living fast and loose, driving fast cars, etc.  But his risky life gets the better of him when he crashes his sports car and is seriously injured; his hands, which used to perform surgery like a concert pianist performs a concerto, are now crumpled and shaky.  His entire reason for existence is gone.

Taking a dive to the depths of despair, he dumps Christine, then discovers a man, Jason Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), who has miraculously recovered from partial paralysis.  Pangborn points Strange to Katmandu, Nepal, where he was made well by a holy person called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).  The desperate Strange makes the journey, meets the Ancient One, and things after that become, well, very strange indeed; the self-centered doctor learning of special gifts that he has to help others that involve everything from bending reality to time travel.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid it was a bit much for me.  Following all the bizarre ins and outs of Strange’s transformation is just a bit more mental muscle-building than I’m wanting to do while relaxing in a theater.  After a while, it all just became a blur, and I chose to simply enjoy the action, the special effects, and Cumberbatch, and forget about trying to make sense of the plot anymore.

It was a good choice for me.  For those who enjoy stories so convoluted that figuring them out requires at least one advanced degree in something, I’m sure you’ll be delighted with this film.  For Marvel Comic fans, you’d have to be a Strange fan to stick with it, but you would (of course) and enjoy it as well.  For the rest of us, this is a weird action movie with a great cast that is better to enjoy on that level (along with its mind-bending visuals) than anything else.

Or just save your money and stay home.

 

HACKSAW RIDGE ****

Mel Gibson, the American-born Australian wunder-actor who burst onto the American film scene  with action classics like Mad Max and the Lethal Weapon franchise in the 80s, then in the 90s as both actor and director in Braveheart (for which he won an Academy Award), and the 2000s with faith-based sensation The Passion of the Christ, has also had his troubles.  Over the last decade or so, he’s had a number of both social and criminal faux-pas that have been close to career-ending, including an inebriated anti-Semitic rant during a drunk-driving arrest that landed him in jail.

But Hollywood loves a good comeback story, and the faith-based folks tend to be very forgiving (especially when one of “their” films becomes a hit), and Mel accomplishes both in this surprisingly poignant film about Desmond Doss, the US Army’s first conscientious objector to ever win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Doss’s family are 7th Day Adventists, who, among other things, worship on Saturday rather than Sunday (and consequently do no work that day) and, most importantly, are ardent pacifists; refusing to take up arms, or even handle guns, for any reason.  But when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and America goes to war, Doss, like so many others, is eager to sign up to help serve in the fight.  But rather than kill Japanese, Doss wants to serve by saving Americans as an Army corpsman, the military EMTs of WWII.  The film chronicles Doss’s battlefield heroics, but even more so plumbs the personal battle he is forced to fight with the US Army to even get through basic training.

It’s an inspiring and movingly-told tale using one of Gibson’s trademark techniques; causing the light of good to shine brightly by juxtaposing it with bloody, heinously violent evil shown in all its gut-spilling, flesh-frying, blood-splattering reality.  He also gets great performances from Andrew Garfield as Doss, Teresa Palmer as Doss’s wife-to-be Dorothy, Hugo Weaving as Doss’s alcoholic father, and Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn as a couple of the officers that oversee Doss at various times in his military career.

A war film about a peaceful man’s uncommon impact, don’t be surprised if this doesn’t show up in some significant awards program’s lists of nominees as those come out later in the year.

 

TROLLS **1/2

This is an unfortunately typical animated feature from Dreamworks Animation that features those long, frizzy-haired creatures that we all thought were so cute back in the 70s and 80s.  The story, such as it is, recounts the adventures of two Trolls, effervescent Poppy (Anna Kendrick), and Scrooge-like Branch (Justin Timberlake), who happen to be AWOL when a gang of Bergens (what most people usually think of when they think of trolls) round up the Trolls and haul them back to their own city in order to steal their happiness (yeah, you heard it right…).  Poppy convinces Branch that they need to rescue the Trolls (he couldn’t care less), and off they go.

It’s a film like this that makes you really appreciate just how much better Disney/Pixar does animated entertainment than all the rest.  Complex stories that challenge children (and adults as well) as opposed to simplistic fluff that patronizes them; original worlds and characters that become their own brands as opposed to using “previously published” toy brands from corporate giants like Mattel and Hasbro, thematic meat and heart embodied in plot lines  rather than preached from characters’ mouths as tack-ons to a bland story, and on and on.  Kendrick and Timberlake make some good music in this one, but that’s about all that distinguishes this from just an elongated Saturday morning cartoon show.

Fun for the under-9 set, bland for everyone else.  Ah well…

 

ARRIVAL ***

Here’s a film for anyone that’s into serious, cerebral, “hard” sci-fi (as opposed to Star Trek – Star Wars style space opera).  Amy Adams turns in a winning performance as a linguist called in to help humans to communicate with aliens who have landed in 12 different spots  around the globe.  Assisted by a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner, Adam’s character Louise goes about her pain-staking work, while more short-sighted people in other places, including a particularly intransigent commander in China, would rather give the aliens a boot.

As world-wide tensions rise, Louise and Ian (Renner) make a startling discovery about a mind-blowing special gift the aliens have and the real reason they came to Earth.

If you can hang with this kind of mentally challenging entertainment, you’ll love this show.  One friend who’s into this genre told me it was on par with iconic hard sci-fi films like 2001 – A Space Odyssey.  Well, I couldn’t make much sense of that one, and I had a hard time putting the pieces of this one together as well, but certainly, it’s a very well-done film with especially good work done by Adams and Renner.

For hard sci-fi fans, this will be a very rich treat, and for the rest of us who want to try, it’s probably money well-spent as well.

 

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM ***

Surely everyone at Warner Bros. is heaving huge sighs of relief.  Their big gamble seems to, at least for now, have paid off.

With the Harry Potter franchise now over, their new DC Comic Books Universe films sputtering and stuttering, and all the Tolkien books anyone’s every heard of also now made into movies, where could they turn for a new billions-in-box-office franchise to keep the lights on?

With the thought of seeking out and discovering new, original potential franchises apparently never crossing anyone’s mind, they turned to J.K. Rowling, the wizard behind the “boy who lived” money machine, to come up with a new blockbuster project even after she’d declared that her Harry Potter story was now over (with her successful Broadway play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and its companion book) and a successful career begun as an adult mystery writer.

Perhaps flattered, she went to work, choosing to base her new “franchise” on the “author” of a companion novella she wrote as part of the Potter series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander, a textbook at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  The film series, for which she’d serve as screenwriter, would center on Scamander’s adventures discovering, studying, and protecting magical creatures and occur in the 1920s, some seventy years before the time of the Potter books.

This first adventure finds Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) laying over in New York for a few hours during his ocean-going cruise back to England after a successful magical beast hunt.  Almost immediately, though, trouble begins as one of the magical creatures that he carries around in his magic suitcase (a badger-like little guy who eats money) escapes in front of a bank.  Handing off a large egg he carries to a passer-by named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a wannabe baker who’s just been turned down for a loan, Newt takes off after the illusive creature.  This catches the eye of Tina (Katherine Waterston), a worker for MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA–think England’s Ministry of Magic).  She ends up helping Newt catch his beastie, then hauls him into the headquarters of the MACUSA (as Jacob tags along–with the now-hatching egg) under the serious charge of exposing no-majes (American for “muggles”) to magic.

She instantly regrets it, though, when MACUSA President Seraphina (Carmen Ejogo) and her right-hand man Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a powerful Auror, take a hard line with Newt, threatening incarceration or even death for his crime.  Newt escapes with Tina’s and Jacob’s help, and the chase is on to bring him back in.  As the three hole up with Tina’s floozy sister Queenie (Alison Sodul) in the girls’ apartment, other, bigger intrigues are revealed, including a brewing scandal involving a right-wing religious activist who is promoting her movement to rid New York of all its magical folk, a sleazy family of New York power-brokers led by tycoon Henry Shaw Sr. (Jon Voight), and word that a Dark Wizard, Gellert Grindelwald, has fled to America from England, where he was once particularly close to renowned wizard Albus Dumbledore.  A suitably effects-ladened climax literally tears The City apart as these elements all come cataclysmically together, but all is magically put to right in the end as the entire populace is “obliviated” of its trauma.

Warner’s has wisely left much intact from the foundation of the Potter franchise to launch this one, including Producers David Heyman and Lionel Wigram, screenwriter Steven Kloves (now in a producer role, no doubt brought in to assist Rowling in the finer points of original screenwriting), and Director David Yates, who finished off the last four of the Potter movies.  With such solid underlying talent, it’s no surprise that Fantastic Beasts well lives up to the standards of the Harry Potter films, at least in terms of direction and production values.  Rowling, in her screenwriting debut, does fall into a not uncommon rookie mistake, though; that of making her supporting characters more exciting and interesting than her main hero and heroine.  While Fogler and Sodul are having a blast as Jacob and Queenie (and stealing every scene they’re in) and Ejogo and Farrell are strong and impressive as the might and muscle of the MACUSA, Redmayne’s Newt and Waterston’s Tina are so painfully reticent that they can scarcely manage to even look anyone in the eye, much less capture the heart of the audience.  Scamander’s actions, however, and Tina’s pluckiness do gradually take hold as the story moves along, though, and by the end, we’re given much more to like about these two than we’ve had through most of the movie.

So a promising start there definitely is to this new “wizarding world” adventure, and there’s ample reason to look forward to better in the future–IF things stay on track.  Let’s hope Warners sees the wisdom of consistency and allows the Potter team to continue to work its magic.