Doctor Strange (2016) – Review

In Doctor Strange (2016), the titular Stephen Strange is a neurosurgeon at the top of his field who, after losing the use of his hands in a car accident, travels the world to find a cure. After discovering a potential mystical solution, he is drawn into a weird and wonderful world of magic.

What sounds like a fairly typical fantasy story on the outside is supported by the efforts of decades of Doctor Strange comics in going beyond the normal and getting as weird as possible. While the film does tend to rely on story tropes Marvel Cinematic Universe fans are used to, it also provides plenty of the strange, with stunning psychedelic special effects sequences that make this one film you have to see in 3D.

Beyond the effects, the film looks great throughout. Costumes and settings are a joy to behold, and the characters spend little time in the boring old real world without Inception-esque reality-bending effects filling the screen.

At its core, Doctor Strange is a film about selfishness and redemption. Nothing new, but it’s pulled off fairly well. Benedict Cumberbatch is a perfect fit as Stephen Strange, even if his accent does waver a bit at the start of the film. There is enough character development to keep viewers invested but ultimately the message of selflessness doesn’t carry as much weight as may have been intended by the time the credits roll.

Look at this nonsense. Beautiful.
Look at this nonsense. Beautiful.

While the visual effects do make this film a joy to watch, it can’t quite cover up some of the flaws. Predictable plot and weak pacing are disappointing, and there’s very little satisfaction from Strange’s journey to master magician. Despite toting a hard-working attitude and sticking his nose into books, he appears to glide through the studies with ease and come out the other side in no time at all. Not only that, but immediately has little trouble going toe to toe with the film’s main villain, Mads Mikkelsen, who is built up as an imposing and dangerous figure but fares poorly against Strange throughout the story.

Thankfully, the film does not take itself too seriously and it’s easy to sit back and just enjoy this film. Aside from being a visual treat, Doctor Strange continues the trend of immensely funny Marvel films, delivering some great dialogue throughout as well as some slapstick comedy that had the audience in my cinema laughing out loud. I spent most of the film with a smile on my face for one reason or another, and that can be just as valuable as a deep, beautifully constructed plot.

All in all, Doctor Strange is far from a perfect film but I will be recommending that everyone sees it. From the beautiful special effects moments to the great comedy timing, this is a fun film from start to finish and I look forward to seeing more of Strange in future Marvel instalments.

Grade: B+

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) – Review

There’s a certain expectation in my mind when I see Tim Burton’s name attached to a film, especially in the capacity of director. Some of his work includes films that I consider all-time favourites, such as Beetlejuice (1988) or Corpse Bride (2005). Miss Peregine’s Home for Peculiar Children is, unfortunately, as disappointing in that regard as it is difficult to repeatedly say in a conversation.

While the world of the film is wildly interesting, the plot and characters are far from it. I enjoyed seeing the ‘peculiar’ children’s abilities and how they would use them in various situations as much as the good use of time manipulation. If I didn’t know that this was all built by the author of the book the film is based on, Ransom Riggs, I would assume Burton wrote it himself. It’s a quirky, whimsical and thoroughly odd world that deserved a better film.

Asa Butterfield, who I hugely enjoyed in Ender’s Game (2013), delivers a bland and unremarkable performance. While this is in part to blame on the boring character, who I assume the audience is supposed to project themselves onto, Butterfield’s acting falls apart from the get go. There are some compelling scenes later on, and he seems to do well with lots of other things happening, but in dialogue-heavy parts of the film, it’s a strain to sit through.

Eva Green is great in this film, but unfortunately can't support a weak protagonist enough.
Eva Green is great in this film, but unfortunately can’t support a weak protagonist. 

Other characters are not able to hold up the film in this regard, but do deliver better performances. Eva Green is one, in the role of the titular Miss Peregrine, she is enjoyable to watch from start to finish. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson makes a great villain, and does the kooky bad guy job well. Chris O’Dowd is amusing to watch as always as the father of the protagonist, with a strong American accent and compelling realism. Additionally, I was surprised by the addition of Dame Judi Dench, and even more shocked by how little time she gets to do anything of note, particularly in a film that could have used some more strong acting.

I found myself bored plenty of times throughout the film, but was glad to see the weird and wonderful ways in which the film uses the children’s powers to spice things up. Whether it’s displacing water out of a sunken ship with control over air, or reanimating an army of comical skeletons to battle enemies, the film makes creative use of its quirkiness even when the plot is dull or predictable.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has a great world full of interesting characters and powers ripe for a quirky, off the rails adventure but instead settles for a plot you can see coming two steps ahead from start to finish. A good one for young teens, but despairingly boring for anyone much older.

Grade: C-

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Deepwater Horizon (2016) – Review

deepwaterhorizonposterThe Deepwater Horizon explosion was a sudden and dramatic incident which preceded the worst environmental disaster in US history. When I first heard about this film, I was irritated by the idea of trivialising such a tragedy by trying to make it into an exciting action film. I was very wrong.

This is a deadly serious, tragic film about real people struggling to survive an epic disaster that took the lives of 11 people. Deepwater Horizon does not shy away from pointing fingers, specifically at BP, but it manages not to make it annoying until the epilogue and it seems justified considering the part that BP and the other companies involved played in allowing this tragedy to occur.

Thankfully, it doesn’t do this by giving us over the top characters but real, skilled people just trying to do their job properly and live their lives. Mark Wahlberg is great in the lead, a grounded intelligent man who is level-headed under pressure, he comes across as the everyday hero throughout this film and it never really strays into the unbelievable, though there are moments of this at times with other characters.

Grounded, real characters are what make this film more than just a visually stunning disaster flick.
Grounded, real characters are what make this film more than just a visually stunning disaster flick.

The rest of the cast is similarly excellent, with Kurt Russell and John Malkovich also delivering strong performances. Dylan O’Brien (who you may recognise from the Maze Runner films) is surprisingly great and, while he doesn’t get too many chances to shine, he shows some strong acting skills that will have me keeping an eye out for him in future films.

Far and above, Deepwater Horizon‘s greatest strength is its visuals. Once the shit hits the fan, this film becomes stunning. Wide shots of the oil rig are shocking as it is engulfed in fire and explosions rock parts of the structure. There are parts of the film where shaky cam is used a little too liberally but there are plenty of beautiful static shots to make up for that.

Likewise, sound plays a great part in helping you feel how catastrophic this event was, as actors are thrown about by explosions and fight their way through choking clouds of burning smoke, you can really get into the raw action of the scenes.

This intensity is quickly becoming a speciality for Peter Berg, who previously directed the excellent Lone Survivor (2013). While Deepwater Horizon takes a well-earned, but heavy-handed chunk of time to drop the blame on BP, and honour the people who died in the tragedy, it is visually spectacular and gripping throughout.

The Girl on the Train (2016) – Review

thegirlonthetrainposterThe Girl on the Train surprised me. Without any prior knowledge, save for a few poorly edited trailers, I expected to sit through a mediocre thriller and what I actually got was a deeply tragic character-driven story. The Girl on the Train is full of broken people, each with their own damaged past and mistakes and problems and emotions, and it knows how to show you. It does sometimes push too hard, putting too much effort into making you feel a certain way or showing you unnecessary backstory that, while heavily emotional and beautifully shot, doesn’t add much except more emotional weight to a story that weighed a ton already.

The main cast in this film deliver good performances for the most part, and Emily Blunt is fantastic in the role of Rachel, the titular girl on the train. A truly broken person, wallowing in her own self-destruction and sorrow, Emily Blunt makes Rachel pitiful a times, despicable at others and there are moments when I genuinely felt uncomfortable watching her. The focus on developing Rachel’s character, however, leaves very little time for the rest of the cast and some of the other characters have a tendency to be a bit two-dimensional.

Aside from the music, Emily Blunt is the strongest aspect of The Girl on the Train.
Aside from the music, Emily Blunt is the strongest aspect of The Girl on the Train.

The Girl on the Train leaps about with its story, jumping back and forth through time and between characters, for the most part fluidly. You rarely feel lost but the pacing does get a little chaotic from time to time even though this is likely done to mirror the rickety state of Rachel’s mind as she stumbles toward a conclusion about what’s really going on. And that is the crux of this film, as it is a film with a twist and, while it does make clear efforts to lead you toward a conclusion alongside Rachel in the second half of the film, you may find yourself putting the pieces together well before the finale. I was left feeling as though it could have gotten there a little smoother, and without some of the unnecessary melodrama and poetic moments, but it does get there in the end.

I enjoyed The Girl on the Train and, while it has a strong tendency to get caught up in itself, becoming pretentious or distracted with unnecessary flashbacks and plot development, it does a good job of showing how bleak and tragic life can be, and I walked out of the cinema emotionally affected.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) – Review

jackreacherposterTom Cruise is in his element in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. A well-paced action film that knows exactly what it is, Never Go Back is thoroughly enjoyable but doesn’t quite live up to the relentless forward momentum of the previous film. Based on a long running book series known for being formulaic, this film surprised me by not just resting on the laurels of the first. While it doesn’t do anything spectacular or new, it manages to switch things up enough to keep fans of the first film more than interested, and ticks all the right boxes for any lover of the action genre.

This is not a character-driven film, but the acting is solid throughout and there is enough plot and character development to keep you more or less invested in the lead characters and their relationships, though a bland villain does little to help this along. One of the main villains barely makes an appearance throughout and the other could be a cardboard cutout with a gun for all it would help, he doesn’t even have a name!

Cobie Smulders delivers a strong performance alongside Cruise
Cobie Smulders delivers a strong performance alongside Cruise.

Tom Cruise maintains his characteristic intensity but the stoicism of the character allows for little else. If anything, he is less intense and less brutal than in the previous instalment, which is somewhat of a disappointment but may be down the addition of new protagonists for this outing. Cobie Smulders (of Avengers fame) and Danika Yarosh (who you may know from Heroes: Reborn) join Tom Cruise in a departure from the lone wolf aspect of the first film. This works fairly well, with some easy exposition and nice character development moments helping to flesh out the film somewhat, but unfortunately seems to cause the film to lose the unrelenting brutality that made me love the original, as it pushes too hard to emotionally affect the audience at times.

Director Edward Zwick is possibly the biggest letdown of the film. For someone whose previous work includes Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai, a generic action flick is the least of what we should be expecting. This is far from a bad film, it’s a solid action film that many people will enjoy but, with a strong cast and a director capable of beautiful action sequences blended with real character-driven stories, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back ultimately falls short of what I was hoping for.

The Shallows (2016) – Review

theshallowsposterA veritable PSA on the dangers of wanderlust, The Shallows (2016) is most disappointing because what it promises is a shark movie to surpass Jaws, but what it delivers is yet another run of the mill thriller, with very little going for it other than a compelling-enough performance from Blake Lively, and a more compelling performance from her co-star, a seagull.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra reportedly ensured roughly 10% of the film was comprised of real footage, with the remainder in a water tank with bluescreens for effects, in order to trick the viewer into believing the setting is real. Unfortunately, weak CGI and repetitiveness brings this illusion to a crashing halt, and while I was immersed in the setting one minute, poor effects would drag me right back out the next.

Surprisingly, the worst CGI in the film is that of the shark. For a director who has done great work with practical effects in the past, this is especially maddening, and it’s hard to be terrified of a shark that would look more appropriate in The Shallows: The Video Game. Not only that, but as the film progresses, the shark becomes less threatening predator and more vindictive enemy à la Deep Blue Sea.

theshallowsseagull
More dramatic shots of a seagull than you would expect.

However, The Shallows is not all bad. Clever underwater shots and a solid soundtrack build suspense well, especially throughout the first half of the film. Blake Lively doesn’t deliver a stellar performance, but she does well enough to keep the audience invested in her plight. Still, dialogue is minimal as Lively spends most of the film alone, and there’s only so often she can talk to herself, the seagull (amusingly, not CGI) or the shark before it gets ridiculous. Thankfully, the focus is more on her character development and family motivations rather than her looks, though the character development that we get is fairly standard for the genre.

The Shallows does a good job of building suspense throughout the first half the film, and keeps the audience rooting for the main character. Unfortunately, some time into the second half there is a notable shift from suspenseful to corny, and Blake Lively transitions jarringly from clever and determined survivor into stereotypical heroine. The film is let down overall by poor effects and lack of variation, but this shift is its final downfall, pulling The Shallows down from the lofty heights of Jaws and landing it much closer to Sharknado.

Susannah Stumbled

tunnel


This was a piece of fiction written for the site Burrst.com in its infancy. Though the site didn’t achieve the popularity it deserved, my post took the top spot and remains there three years later.
Link for those interested: http://burrst.com/bursts/36/?offset=0

Susannah stumbled over a particularly large piece of broken stone and would have fallen flat on her face if she hadn’t collided into the nearest wall. She span away from the curved wall of the tunnel and continued running, doing her best to ignore the grating sound from her shoulder and the jolting pain in her arm.
She cranked the pace up, remembering the blood on her boyfriend’s face as he staggered out of the darkness, what had to have been only minutes ago. Then the endless running and falling: these dank tunnels seemed to continue on infinitely into the darkness. If she hadn’t been scared out of her mind, and bleeding in several places, Susannah would have likely translated the situation into some pretentious metaphor about life and death.
Judging from her frequent collisions with walls and rocky outcrops, the tunnel was curving and turning occasionally. Susannah thought she was going in the same direction as when she started, but she’d heard that when you were lost and thought you were going in a straight line, you could often find yourself travelling in circles. She wasn’t sure if that applied to tunnels as well as woods and mountains. Either way, Susannah would give anything to be lost in the woods rather than this damp and dangerous tunnel: one unfortunately placed outcrop of rock combined with some equally unfortunate timing and she would be a goner.
Connor had gotten ahead of her any number of minutes ago but she hadn’t heard or seen him in a while. He had to be up here somewhere, and all she had to do was catch up with him and they could figure a way out together. She assumed he would be close: with a head injury and twelve years of smoking under his belt, he couldn’t be that quick.
Susannah was experiencing hope for the first time during this endless run when her bad shoulder connected with a sharp corner in the tunnel and, wheeling around to regain her balance, her foot slipped into a crack in the floor. She heard the snap her ankle made but barely registered the pain, too busy cursing as she collided with the floor and slid over an edge into darkness.
It took about two and a half seconds for Susannah to hit the bottom of the hole and for her neck to break and her body to contort into a shattered mess. She wasn’t counting down, she only had time for two things in the couple of seconds before her death.
The first was to scream and the second was to recognise one other sound amid her screaming. Something far above her, in the tunnel at the edge of the pit, was laughing.