You think you know how the world works. You think this material universe is all there is. What if I told you the reality you know is one of many?
The Dr. Strange comics could only have come out in the 60’s. They unabashedly combined New Age style mysticism with Steve Ditko’s psychedelic artwork conveying surrealistic worlds that seemed to come from the mind of Salvador Dali. Which is why it’s only right and proper that Dr. Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) the latest Marvel movie be the trippiest, dippiest, most visually stunning film to date in their lexicon. Much has been made of the way buildings falling into themselves mimics the look of Inception, but we’re also treated to parallel universes whose look and feel is straight out of the old Ditko comics. The effects folks on Doctor Strange should clean up at the Oscars this year, and this is the rare movie that really does justify the cost of seeing it in IMAX 3D.
The plotline itself is a little skimpy with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock and The Imitation Game) a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon whose hands are ruined in an accident. After Western medicine fails him, he spends his last penny on a ticket to Nepal to seek a cure at an ancient temple where he becomes an expert in the mystical arts. A cocky jerk getting taken down a few pegs only to rise to heroism in the third act is a song Marvel’s played for us many times before.
Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch
Still even if it’s familiar ground in terms of character arcs, Strange’s training sequence at Kamar-Taj is a lot of fun. While playing an insufferable genius is second nature to Cumberbatch at this point, he shows an unexpected penchant for physical humor especially when he grapples with the cloak of power. Benedict Wong of Prometheus and The Martian is great as Wong the Temple’s stern-faced, badass librarian. Casting Tilda Swinton, a white woman, as The Ancient One, a character of Asian persuasion in the comics, was controversial, but there’s no doubt she brings a lot of energy and nuance to her scenes. And Rachel McAdams is quite charming and empathetic as Strange’s ex-lover Cristine whom he pushes away. Sadly there isn’t enough of her, just as you wish Mads Mikkleson as the main baddie had more to do than look suitably menacing while delivering speeches. (Though he does in fact look very menacing and his delivery is great.)
But the real standout of the cast may be Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, 12 Years a Slave) as Mordo a militant fellow sorcerer and pupil to Strange.
Warning! May contain spoilers from here on out.
Mordo is a man of incredible strength and principle but also deeply rigid. Watching his ideals and beliefs conflict with sometimes morally murky and always messy reality is in some ways the real character arc of the film. One which leaves tantalizing possibilities for the future. Marvel movies may finally get another interesting villain besides Loki. And in fact Dr. Strange may soon be meeting Loki.
Photos courtesy of Marvel/Disney
With Dr. Strange coming out Friday, (the buzz says that it’s the trippiest Marvel movie yet), inevitably the mind turns to other magicians, wizards, witches, and sorcerers supreme who’ve dazzled us on screen. As the following examples show mastering the Dark Arts is a veritable cinematic tradition.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) This technicolor, musical-comedy-drama-fantasy, based on the beloved Frank L. Baum masterpiece, represents the best of Golden Age Hollywood with Judy Garland in the performance that made her an icon. While (spoiler alert) the titular wizard is a fraud, the powers of Elphalba the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda the Good Witch are very real and propel much of the events of the plot. It was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture but lost to Gone With the Wind. Initially something of a box office disappointment, it would later go on to become one of the best known films in American history and a cultural landmark.
Excalibur (1981) Directed, produced, and co-written by John Boorman (Deliverance and The Tailor of Panama) Excalibur retells the classic legend of King Arthur primarily from the viewpoint of Merlin played with grandeur by Nicol Williamson (Hamlet, Inadmissible Evidence). From the days of Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne in the role that launched his career) to Arthur’s final showdown with Mordred, Merlin steals the show. And this is among a truly great cast including Nigel Terry as King Arthur, Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fay, Nicholas Clay as Sir Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Gwenevere, a young Patrick Stewart as King Leondegrance, Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, and Corin Redgrave as the Duke of Cornwall. It was all filmed in Ireland, and holds up as one of the best Arthurian adaptions of all time.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987) Directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame and based on the John Updike novel of the same name. Alexandra (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon), and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer), are three women all living in Eastwick, Rhode Island who share two things in common. One, they’re all single having lost their husbands. Secondly, unbeknownst to them, they are all witches, and wittingly they start a coven and start practicing spells. Soon the mysterious Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) comes to town and that’s when things start to get freaky. It was nominated for two Academy Awards and holds an over 70% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) Directed by Chris Columbus. No such list would be complete without including the movie based on the best-selling book series that kicked off one of THE most successful film franchises in history. It helped that to do justice to Rowling’s vision they put together an all-star cast as well including Maggie Smith, John Hurt, Robbie Coltrane, and the dearly departed Alan Rickman. Billions of dollars later, Hogwarts has become a cultural landscape that all children secretly dream of being invited to attend, Dumbledore and Snape are now household names, and it launched Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe’s careers into the stratosphere.
The Witch (2015) Newcomer Robert Eggers wrote and directed this historical period supernatural horror tale that came seemingly out of nowhere to become an indie hit that grossed $40 million on a $3 million dollar budget. A puritan family is banished from their old settlement and builds a new farm by the woods. But beginning with the disappearance of their youngest child infant Samuel it soon becomes clear they are being terrorized by a powerful witch. It has an over 90% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and Stephen King said the movie “scared the hell out of me.”
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