Monday, 2 January 2017

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Doctor Strange

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Produced by: Kevin Feige

Screenplay by: Jon Spaihts
Scott Derrickson
C. Robert Cargill

Based on: Doctor Strange by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Rachel McAdams
Benedict Wong
Michael Stuhlbarg
Benjamin Bratt
Scott Adkins
Mads Mikkelsen
Tilda Swinton

Music by: Michael Giacchino

Cinematography by: Ben Davis

Editing by: Wyatt Smith
Sabrina Plisco

Studio: Marvel Studios

Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Release date(s): October 13, 2016 (Hong Kong, world premiere)
October 25, 2016 (United Kingdom)
November 4, 2016 (United States)

Running time: 115 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $165 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $657, 813, 341

Up for review here, under the knife (oh, how very fitting, Cal, you're a gas...) today is Doctor Strange, the fourteenth and latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the last to whet those superhero appetites until Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2 comes out in May next year. Doctor Strange is one of those projects that has been in the back-burner for quite some time, for while he may be beloved among comic-book fans (he's a favourite that always seems to be crop up and play a big part in large storylines), his character and 'powers,' as it were, are of a slightly different nature to what we have come to expect in contemporary superhero films, so to some extent it was always going to be somewhat of a gamble. In this adaptation of the comics, brilliant but self-centred neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) suffers the loss of the use of his hands in a car accident, ending his medical career. However, after learning a paraplegic who learned how to walk again, he is directed to Kamar-Taj, where the sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) takes him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who shows him the astral plane and other dimensions. Strange begs to be taught the mystical powers to access them, to which, despite his arrogance reminding her of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), one of her pupils who broke with the old ways and took his disciples with him. Kaecilius has, of course, in the way of these things, been causing a bit of trouble lately, so things go their usual way. Got it? Good! Call that an abrupt cutoff if you want, but I just don't think there's much more to say.

To start off with the good, I want to highlight the technical qualities of the film. Although I know it was released in 3D, me being me I went to see it in 2D, and I can say that the visual effects and CGI of the film are absolutely stunning, so much so I think I would like to have seen it in the former format. Nevertheless, I was drawn in by the mind-bending brilliance of these effects, and not only do they contribute greatly to some very exciting and unique action sequences, but they are seamless in their design, so not only can we see what is going on without getting lost in the thick of it, we can appreciate the story that they are telling with them. Highly accomplished work here. Obviously Ben Davis as cinematographer does much to contribute here, and there is some terrific imagery at work here amidst these well-shot action sequences. The harmony and synthesis of this interaction of visual aesthetics is completed by the editing work of Wyatt Smith and Sabrina Plisco, creating a wonderful overall piece and one of the most visually interesting blockbusters I've seen in recent years. We've also got another great score from Michael Giacchino, who really has been on a roll with Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Jurassic World and Inside Out under his belt over the past couple of years. He's one of the few composers who is able to work at this high level with high degree of output (he's done ten scores since 2014) and yet still maintain a strong quality control over his work. Giacchino has a certain gift at being able deliver rabble-rousing scores while telling a story with his music unique to any particular film. At it's worst, it can be intrusive, but when it's done well, as it is here, it can really contribute to the film. Another praiseworthy quality is the performances of the cast. Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mikkelsen and Swinton are all on good form (and Benedict Wong is hilariously deadpan as Wong, the seemingly humourless master keeper of relics and texts of the Kamar-Taj), but I want to focus in particular on Benedict Cumberbatch. Netting the Sherlock actor, one of the hottest properties in both television and film for the lead role was a real coup for Marvel, and the film benefits greatly from his presence. Cumberbatch oozes the swagger and charisma necessary for conveying the arrogance of the character, but also in his own way, both through his excellent physical control, composition and facial expressions, captures our sympathies and increasing emotional investment in Stephen Strange's downfall as a neurosurgeon and eventual resurrection as a mystic. In a Universe that is getting some really terrific actors in to play their protagonists, Cumberbatch's Strange has already become one of the standouts. Finally, I want to praise the directorial efforts of Scott Derrickson. Having come a long way from the likes of Hellraiser: Inferno, The Day The Earth Stood Still remake and Sinister, and while the second film there was no small fry, this is his first massive gig, and it's a triumph. There's a lot of different things to take into account with a Doctor Strange film, and any one of them could cause the film to flop and fall flat on it's face. However, for the most part, everything is in good order (especially the overall mise-en-scene, with the production design, costumes and make-up/hair being another standout element of a high standard), and, indeed, Derrickson does things with a certain degree of flair, giving the proceedings a bit of his own flavour, character, in the process.

However, these praiseworthy things being said about Doctor Strange, and I will continue to say good words about it, there are a number of faults with the picture which ensure that while it remains a very good film, it is not a great film. Namely, these issues come from two different aspects; firstly, the script, and secondly, an aspect which also affects to some extent the script, the production directive. I'll deal with the former first, and frankly while I enjoyed Doctor Strange, it suffers from a number of the common pitfalls that come from establishing a new character in an origin story film. There has to be the prelude, the conflict and the rise of how they come to be who they are. Marvel have a terrific formula as far as money-making, crowd-pleasing blockbusters, so much so they can practically churn out a good movie with their hands tied behind their backs, but it always seems to be the case that any time they are concerned with origin stories, they tend to be hitting all the same beats, getting the basil-exposition out of the way before they get down to business in the sequels. However good the film may be at establishing this character and the world he inhabits, it is, almost by defaults, formulaic in terms of it's general plot and where it goes. I had the same feeling about Iron Man in 2008 and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011. Furthermore, and as I said this has a direct effect upon the script, a criticism that can be levelled at it is that this is part of the extended Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the production directive is clear at not only establishing Stephen Strange but getting him to fit into the wider scheme of things. As such, a lot of time is spent weaving it together and tying up all the loose ends, and unfortunately, much as this is a unique world very much of it's own, it is not a self-contained one but a small piece of a bigger puzzle. It's a rare thing for a successful origin story to work entirely as a self-contained film (Richard Donner's Superman and Robocop did it well, and most recently Batman Begins and 2009's J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot). It does somewhat here, but not entirely.

Despite my having those reservations about the script and the general production directive, I had a lot of fun with Doctor Strange. The mise-en-scene is terrific, with some fantastic visual effects, great cinematography, a strong score from Michael Giacchino, a winning lead performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and solid direction from Scott Derrickson. It has it's flaws, but it's still an accomplished and entertaining piece of filmmaking.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.5/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Well

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