The Marvel Universe, like any universe, can always welcome Benedict Cumberbatch with open arms. He takes the character of Doctor Strange–that’s his real name, not just his super hero name–an arrogant, callous, selfish surgeon who is involved in a car crash that nearly destroys his hands. This of course renders him useless as a surgeon; and even though the crash was 100% his fault, he still goes on a quest to try and heal his hands because he doesn’t think that maybe he deserves this punishment for being such a mean guy.
His love interest, Christine (Rachel McAdams), tries her best to stick by him professionally and personally. Professionally because she works with him, and personally because she is in love with him. But he turns her away, and he goes on his own to find his cure. He hears about a former patient that was cured of paralysis of his spine. He was told he’d never walk again, and he defied that. Strange can’t believe such a thing, but he’s given his file which convinces him. This takes him all the way to Kathmandu in Nepal, to a compound called Kamar-Taj. There, he meets The Ancient One–that’s her real name, not just her super hero name–an intelligent, wise, and has incredible powers that intrigue Strange. She also happens to be bald, but Tilda Swinton can pull anything off.
Strange learns that we can harness an energy and use it, divining from other universes and multiverses and whatnot. It’s like Hawking mixed with Confucius. With time, belief, and training, Strange can harness the energy himself, and cure his hands. More importantly, the Ancient One and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) want to recruit Strange to fight against a dark entity who wants to control all universes–Dormammu. Dormammu has his own disciples, including Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who is the resident adversary in this yarn.
Dormammu eventually makes an appearance–he isn’t all that intimidating, looking more like a cross between a Michael Bay Transformer and a Disney ride prop (I wonder why). The dark realm that he controls actually looks a bit inviting. Not a murky, dangerous looking place but rather a blue hued star system you’d see at a Planetarium. But Dormammu means business, and the Ancient One needs to find as many soldiers as she can to destroy him.
He acts as a devious type who can lure you into using dark magic, thinking that you will be more powerful and use it for immortality. Strange, for the most part, doesn’t want any part of the revolution–but he’s roped in, and decides he can actually serve mankind humbly. Somehow he has a cosmic draw to the magic and sorcery, and attracts a sharp looking cape that becomes his pal, and protects him.
There are some really big laughs in this film, which adds to its entertainment value. While the origin story plays out as standard fare, and there really are no surprises in the storytelling, the spikes of humor are a nice touch. One involves a running joke with a resident Master, Wong (Benedict Wong–that’s his real name, not just–OK you get it), who is quite a treat. There is some play with the name “Strange”, which is a little more predictable but still elicits laughs.
Mordo and Strange have nice chemistry working together to fend off the evil forces, and the action sequences are pretty spectacular to watch. As a spectacle, it’s what you’d expect from Marvel. Again, it’s not anything better than what we’ve seen in previous films in the MCU–but Cumberbatch, Swinton, Wong, and Ejiofor all make it something a little more special.
It’s a good two hour venture into a new piece of an ever expanding universe–and that’s better than what DC is giving us so far.
“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Those are words spoken by our film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) who was a real historical black free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film “12 Years a Slave” depicts his journey into that world, and his hope that he can return to his family. He is an accomplished fiddler and carpenter, and has a wife and two children and lives in New York. He is approached by two seemingly harmless men to join their “circus” as a featured musician. But we all know where this is going–he is given too much wine after celebrating a successful tour, and wakes up in a cell in chains.
What follows is a very emotional story, anchored by one of the strongest performances of the year by Chiwitel Ejiofor; however, some of the film’s weak points distract from what could have been an even more powerful film. Northup is given a new name upon capture, Platt, and told he is a “runaway from Georgia”. His first experience as a slave is on a slave ship heading down to Louisiana, and witnesses some of the real brutalities of slavery immediately. He is sold by an indifferent slaver (played by Paul Giamatti) to a rather nice plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But one of Ford’s carpenters, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), wants to make life a living hell for slaves (as if life weren’t hard enough). This is where the film is weak, and I’m a bit disappointed in Paul Dano for choosing such a caricature role. It’s easy to play the hilljack Southern racist who mugs the screen by licking his chops at any chance to yell out racial epithets and use a whip. I think we get that these people existed…but this character could’ve been played by anyone and been just as shallow and useless as an ancillary background role. Northup doesn’t back down, however, and when he fights back, he is hunted by Tibeats and even strung up, about to be lynched. Tibeats and his crew are fired by the overseer, who leaves Northup hanging, although the rope hasn’t been fully discharged, so he still can hardly breathe and dangles helplessly as a slew of people come out and do their normal routines as if nothing is happening to him. This is one of the better scenes in the film because it’s a continuous shot that continues to unfold and pretty much symbolizes what we thought of slavery and blacks at the time.
Ford is unable to protect Northup and so he sells him to another plantation owner who is far more cruel (of course) and pretty much insane. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is the new owner, who runs a strict cotton plantation, and treats his slaves as if they were animals–except one slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) for whom Epps has obvious feelings for, and is resented by his wife (Sarah Paulson). While Epps is another white guy with a whip, Fassbender brings another dimension to the character, showing him to be more of a controlled coward than just your average racist. He is consumed with wanting power, but is powerless when it comes to his wife, and he does whatever she tells him to do. She is hard to figure out–but she isn’t exactly high on the slaves, either. In a way Epps’ character reminds me of Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List” (although I think that character was better written). Epps also has a strange ritual in the evenings, to order his slaves to dance to happy music with him. Since Northup can play the fiddle, he is spared the dancing, but still has to watch it. Patsey is the most skilled picker on the plantation, bringing in over 500 pounds daily, but deep down she is consumed with wanting to be set free from the plantation, even if it means leaving the physical earth completely. At one point she asks Northup to end her life, to which he cannot bring himself to do.
Eventually a white criminal joins the group of slaves and Northup sees this as an opportunity to get out; but he is betrayed by the man and has to talk his way out of giving a letter to the man that would have reached New York, and notified his family of his predicament. Epps believes Northup’s story that the man wasn’t to be trusted anyway and just wanted to become an overseer, and this was just a tactic of his to manipulate the situation. But later, another white character is introduced–a Canadian carpenter and friendly to slaves, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt). Bass is a bit of an arbitrary character, seemingly on brought to screen for exposition and being preachy–another weakness of the script. Pitt is a fine actor but it seems like his presence in this film was screaming “I produced this, so I’m going to put myself in the film as the most sympathetic white character.” Northup again has to try and trust this man, knowing what he is risking. But to the audience, it’s pretty obvious what will happen.
Overall, there are powerful moments in the film, especially in its climax, and thanks to Ejiofor’s incredible performance, the film works. The other strong points are the soundtrack and the cinematography. There are a lot of shots of trees, seeming to represent constancy, and even when the trees look like they’re dying or somehow suffering, they still stand strong. The backdrops of dusk and dawn show a representation of the passage of time, and how these points of day symbolize death and life. It isn’t just about surviving, as Northup points out, it is about living. This is a part of our history, whether we want to bring ourselves to accept it or not. I think the film could’ve presented a statement in a more clever way at times; but sometimes it needs to be blunt. It’s not a film you would necessarily want to watch over and over again; but for one viewing at least, it is certainly worth the time and will definitely move you.
The journey continues for Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves and this one is a little more action packed than its predecessor. However, just like in a lot of hammock films, it’s pretty much all set up and absolutely no resolution. It still makes for an entertaining film if you’re already a fan of Tolkein’s classics and Peter Jackson’s adaptations. But it leaves a lot to be desired.
This one begins a bit before the first film’s events where Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, who is starting to look sort of tired of playing this role) first meets Thorin Oakenshield (reprised by Richard Armitage). I don’t think we really needed this scene, but what medieval fantasy film would be complete without the “drunk pub” sequence? We need to see thirsty men dance and drink to believe we are in middle earth.
There are some new characters we are introduced to, such as Tauriel (played by Evangeline Lilly, looking a bit…lost), and Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) who can change into a large bear, but looks even creepier in his human form. The dwarves are still on a quest to recapture their gold from the Lonely Mountain which is still being held captive by Smaug, the dragon (voiced curiously by Benedict Cumberbatch). Along the way they are attacked by large spiders, followed by Azog and the Orcs again. One thing you really come away with in this series is that no one really likes dwarves, and no one really pays much attention to hobbits. But that doesn’t stop these stout hearted men even if they are sleight of height. Some of the antics are fun, such as a rip roaring rapid adventure that looks like it’d be a fun Disney ride. But some of the film slows down once the dwarves are captured by the Elves, who are just so smug and perfect you want to stick an arrow in their backside sometimes. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is featured here, but his screen time isn’t as majestic as it was in “Lord of the Rings”.
The series itself isn’t as strong as “Lord of the Rings” and that’s obviously because the source material was one small novel and not an entire trilogy of books. Jackson borrows from other sources to beef up the material, but there are some very drawn out scenes that you can tell is just plain filler. The other problem is that a lot of the characters are just not that interesting. The characters don’t have much depth, and Bilbo takes a back seat to the dwarves which is a narrative mistake.
The dragon effects for Smaug are good, and the film starts to find its footing once the dwarves reach the Lonely Mountain. But †here’s the thing about that: just when you think this is going to have some climactic ending…it fades to the credits.
Now, the second film in any planned trilogy is going to naturally suffer from this. Even “Catching Fire” had this problem, though I found that a lot more involving. The only one that’s ever really felt satisfying as a stand alone film is “The Empire Strikes Back”, even though that didn’t really have an ending either. It was saved by having one of the best twists in its climax, though, and it stands as one of the best sequels ever made.
“The Desolation of Smaug” isn’t catchy title, and its matter of fact blandness sort of becomes the symbol of why this film is not very memorable. You’d pretty much only watch it if you were going to watch the entire trilogy of “The Hobbit”. It does leave you craving for the final film, “There and Back Again”; but I think Jackson could have done a better job trying to give this its own identity as well.
In 2009, we were treated to another incarnation of the original “Star Trek” cast. After all, after “Nemesis” it was evident that there was no more room for the “Next Generation” cast as it seemed their film arc was all washed up. I still don’t know how that happened as they were a bright, fun cast with an introspective and classy captain. I chalk it up to unimaginative writing and stagnant directing by Jonathan Frakes, who played also played Riker.
The series was rebooted and at the helm was “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams who had done a nice job taking an ensemble cast in that show and putting them in interesting situations while growing them as characters (for the first few seasons, anyway). Abrams was hired as director for the “Star Trek” reboot even though he was admittedly not a big fan of the show. That’s not always a kiss of death, however. In some ways it can help because there’s no fanboy bias that you have to worry about. The result, too, was a smashing success, putting together a great cast of young actors to reinvigorate the roles of the original star ship Enterprise. Although the villain was a bit cartoonish and weak, the main story of Kirk and Spock becoming friends was extremely well done.
Now, four years later, we say hello again to the same cast, and it’s a real pleasure seeing them again. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have mastered the roles of Kirk and Spock respectively; though they are friendlier, there are still some kinks to work out. When we are first introduced to them this time around, the Enterprise is on an observational mission on a small planet of natives who are about to be wiped out by a volcano. Acting against their Prime Directive, they are seen by the natives and Kirk saves Spock’s life while he is in the active volcano, trying to save the race from extinction. Though it was a noble effort, Kirk is reprimanded by not only his superiors, but also by Spock because saving his life was “illogical”. Kirk is relieved of his captain status, and Spock is reassigned to another Federation ship.
But don’t think that means we’re not going to see them work together. A bomb explodes on Earth wiping out a department in Starfleet, and the culprit is a former officer known as John Harrison who, for unexplained reasons, has gone rogue. Kirk is given First Officer status on the Enterprise and is assigned to accompany Admiral Pike (reprised by Bruce Greenwood). Before their mission is underway, however, they are attacked at Starfleet Command, and Pike is killed by Harrison. Kirk finds out at this point that this terrorist plot is related to a secret that Starfleet is keeping, one that offers a bit of a twist on John Harrison that I won’t reveal–but you will be very familiar with it if you’ve followed any of the “Star Trek” films in your life.
With Pike dead, Kirk resumes his position as captain and reinstates Spock as First Officer. Their mission is also a secret one: to take out John Harrison on the Klingon planet Kronos, in an uninhabited city. The order is given by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), and the Enterprise is sent into Kronos. Once on the planet, however, Kirk decides to spare Harrison’s life and capture him rather than kill him. They are greeted unexpectedly by Marcus in another Federation ship, the USS Vengeance, and Marcus insists again that Harrison be killed. Marcus’ daughter, Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) is on board the Enterprise, and when she learns that Marcus intends to destroy the Enterprise if needbe, she tries to intervene. But all Marcus does is beam her aboard, and Kirk is left in a very precarious situation.
There is a lot more going on in this film than the previous one, obviously. That should always be the case when it comes to sequels. Raise the stakes, make it more interesting, give the characters something more to work with. Abrams and Co. do this as best they can but†they are somewhat hampered in this sophomore effort by a sophomoric script, co-written by former “Lost” buddy Damon Lindelof. As in “Prometheus”, Lindelof shows that he cannot seem to handle complexities in character and narrative arc, and some situations are handled more like a Sunday morning comic rather than a feature film. So expect some Deus Ex Machinas, and suspend your disbelief a little bit more than you’re used to, even in a science fiction action film like this.
It especially works against them in the character of Harrison, who is a very convincing villain played exquisitely by Benedict Cumberbatch. There is an open ending which begs for his return and I hope it does happen, because his character felt a bit rushed at times when this character deserves patient and deliberate writing to be a†worthy foe for Kirk and the Enterprise.
But it is nice to see the cast again, and actors Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, and John Cho are appealing supporting actors rounding out the splendid Enterprise crew. The only one that seems to still just “impersonate” his counterpart is Karl Urban who plays Dr. “Bones” McCoy. Every time he speaks he is trying too hard to “sound like” Bones rather than just be Bones. Other than that, the cast works perfectly.
The film delivers big laughs as well as big thrills, and although there are a few too many climaxes in third act that wears you down a bit, the ending is satisfying and it made me want to see where these characters will boldly go next.
I just hope the next script provides an equally interesting story that isn’t littered with plot holes and convenient resolutions.