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Posts Tagged ‘Chiwetel Ejiofor’

You may relax, your calendar is not broken: there are, as usual, two Marvel Studios films on release this year, it’s just that one of them hasn’t come out until now – not quite the first time the studio has done something like this, but not exactly their standard practice either. Anyway, not content to rest on their laurels and do another sequel with an established brand, Marvel have opted to press on with bringing what sometimes feels like their entire catalogue of characters to the big screen (well, except the ones that Fox still have the rights to, anyway). This time, Scott Derrickson has been put in charge of adapting one of Marvel’s less prominent properties, a bit of a cult character from years gone by, if the truth be told. Yes, finally, it’s a movie version of Night Nurse!

Well, not quite, although one of the Night Nurse characters does appear (another one is sort-of in the Daredevil TV show, of course). No, the new movie is Doctor Strange, based on one of the few major Marvel characters not to primarily be a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation – on this occasion Lee worked with Steve Ditko. This was the same pairing which created Spider-Man, so you would think that the omens were good. Well, sort of, but we’ll come to that.

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Stephen Strange, a brilliant but egotistical and obnoxious neurosurgeon, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is probably overdue to be making a major appearance in this kind of movie. (Yes, this does mean that Dr Strange is technically one of those superheroes who operates using his real name.) Strange has sort of nibbled around the edges of a romance with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – the Night Nurse character to whom I alluded earlier – but having a relationship is tricky as he is really much more in love with himself.

Things inevitably change when Strange is involved in a serious road accident which leaves him with severely damaged hands, thus ending his surgical career. Exhausting his fortune in pursuit of some kind of treatment for his condition, he eventually learns of a school in Nepal where apparently-miraculous cures have been known to happen. (The school obviously isn’t in Tibet, because Marvel want to sell their movie in China.) There, he encounters a mystic teacher known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her disciple Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and rapidly discovers that this is actually a school for your actual magicians and sorcerers…

Well, this isn’t enough to rattle a character played by a performer of the magnitude of Benylin Thundercrack, and so Dr Strange signs on to learn to become a magician, though he is excused the scene with the Sorting Hat and also quidditch practice. What he doesn’t know at first, however, is that a fallen disciple of the Ancient One (played by Mads Mikkelson) has entered into a pact with the dread Dormammu, tyrant of the Dark Dimension, and is planning to conspire in the world’s destruction in exchange for eternal life. Is there a doctor in the house?

It may seem a little odd for Marvel to have held Doctor Strange back until eight years into their franchise-of-franchises undertaking, especially when more minor characters (Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy) have already made their movie debuts. Maybe so, but Dr Strange has always been a slightly tricky proposition as a character – Steve Ditko’s extraordinary psychedelic artwork in the early issues from the 60s led many observers to assume that the only magic involved came from mushrooms, while from a story point of view, Dr Strange is often presented as so nebulously omnipotent that he can be very difficult to write for.

So, very nearly full marks to Derrickson and his team for coming up with a movie that is distinctively Strange while still remaining wholly accessible (I would guess) to the uninitiated viewer. (I’m sure casting a very popular performer like Cumbersome Bandersnatch won’t hurt the box office numbers either.) Marvel’s policy these days seems to be to offer up something which is partly very familiar and partly rather new, and it continues here.

I feel I should mention that one of my friends who I saw the film with disagreed, suggesting that every Marvel adaptation sticks close to exactly the same formula, basically that they all end with a city on the verge of spectacular destruction, and that this one is no exception – I should quickly add that he still thought this film was enjoyable. Personally I don’t agree – neither Ant-Man nor Civil War ended that way – but on the other hand, I do think Marvel have played it a bit too safe in the characterisation of Strange himself. At the beginning of the film, at least, he is wise-cracking and self-centred in exactly the way Robert Downey Jr was at the beginning of the first Iron Man, to the extent where they almost seem like the same character. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio were attempting to position things so that Bellyhatch Cummerbund can take over as a mainstay of the series once Downey Jr’s salary requirements finally prove too exorbitant, but even so: for me this doesn’t excuse a scene where the traditionally reserved and courteous doctor calls an opponent a name for a body part which is not normally found in a medical textbook.

On the other hand, this film isn’t afraid to make some slightly eccentric choices, and I don’t just mean using a harpsichord on the soundtrack: there’s a very trippy sequence early on which seemed to me to be very faithful to the spirit of Ditko’s artwork, while the climax itself is considerably weirder than anything comparable from other Marvel movies. The film is well played by a strong cast and visually very striking, rather skilfully repurposing some Inception-style visuals in a more traditional fantasy-adventure context. I can even just about forgive the decision to make much of Dr Strange’s sorcery look basically like CGI-enhanced kung fu. (Not all – by the end of the movie his ability to warp space and time is so developed that one wonders just how they will be able to meaningfully challenge him during future appearances, although as mentioned this is a problem with the comics version of the character too.)

Once again – and by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, how do they keep doing it?!? – Marvel have produced a movie which is very comfortable with its own identity while meshing seamlessly with their wider franchise – although, to be honest, the rest of the world is kept in abeyance, at least until the closing credits. Dr Strange looks like being an engaging addition to the ensemble, and I’m looking forward to seeing Clumsylatch Bandicoot spar with some of the more established faces of the series. No one in the world is making more consistently entertaining and accomplished genre movies at the moment – Doctor Strange won’t change your life, but I suspect you’ll have a good time watching it. A good adaptation of a challenging book.

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Rather unexpectedly, we seem to have found ourselves in the middle of an Officially Recognised Golden Age of Space Movies (if only there was a convenient way of referring to it suitable for a family readership). Even NASA seem to have cottoned on to this, timing their recent press announcement of the discovery of salt water on Mars to coincide with a peak of media interest in the red planet – mostly courtesy of Ridley Scott and his chums, whose new movie The Martian is hitting screens even as I type.

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Ridley Scott’s track record when it comes to SF movies is… well, let’s just say I’m less of a fan of them than many people, but even so they are invariably never less than interesting to watch, and I’ve been a bit of a sucker for hard SF about Mars since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Trois Coleurs trilogy many years ago. And one should always make the best of a golden age of anything while it lasts.

Based on Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian opens with an American mission already in situ, commanded by Jessica Chastain and featuring a number of moderately well-known faces (Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, that sort of people) amongst the crew. Inclement Martian weather (i.e. a colossally violent sandstorm) forces an early evacuation of their outpost, but in the chaos mission botanist Matt Damon is struck by flying debris. With all contact lost, Chastain is forced to leave without him, believing him dead.

However – spoiler alert – Matt Damon is not dead, just resting, and accepts that he is effectively Home Alone on Mars with good grace, once he has finished stapling himself back together. A spot of DIY hydroponics provides him with a food supply of sorts, but the fact remains: NASA and the folks back on Earth remain blissfully unaware of his survival, and it’s a long walk home…

Well, it’s an unfortunate fact that Matt Damon’s service record when it comes to long-haul one-man deep space missions is not entirely unblemished, even when Jessica Chastain is involved, but even so, this is the kind of movie which leads sensible people to say things like ‘It’s hard to imagine Matt Damon making a bad film’ (Stuck on You and The Brothers Grimm clearly don’t linger long in the memory). The Martian may rest very comfortably in the same subgenre as Gravity and Interstellar, but I suspect it’s a more certain crowdpleaser than either of those.

This is despite the fact that, on some levels, it is actually a deeply nerdy film. Large sections of the plot revolve around fairly abstruse problems of hydroponics, astrodynamics, engineering and maths – the film seems to be trying as hard as it possibly can to get the science as right as the expectations of a major Hollywood movie will allow. (That said, there is a considerable amount of licence employed, particularly in the closing scenes, where the twelve-minute lag in communication between Earth and Mars is fudged for dramatic effect.)

Despite all this, it remains an extremely likeable and accessible film. This is largely due to the presence of the always-engaging Damon in the central role (he does, after all, have to carry lengthy sections of the film unaccompanied), but also the result of a script which works extremely hard to put a human face on the story. On one level this works simply as an adventure story about the power of human ingenuity and the will to survive, and it’s a good one: it’s really rather refreshing to find a film with such an upbeat view of humanity, without a single really unsympathetic character, especially when it works so well as a story. The film-makers work hard to fill the movie with little moments of lightness and humour, many of them arising from an unexpectedly eclectic soundtrack, including performers like Abba, Hot Chocolate, and David Bowie (not even the song you might be expecting, either). A strong supporting cast including the likes of Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor (who I note has ascended to the point where he qualifies for the ‘and’ position in the credits) helps a lot, of course.

Even as I was watching the film, and thoroughly enjoying it, I couldn’t help but find myself reflecting on the fact that the more science you put into a movie, the more certain it is that you’ll make tiny slips or compromises in the service of the story, and the more criticism you’re inevitably going to draw from the very same nerdy audience you were trying to satisfy in the first place. Both Gravity and Interstellar drew more of this kind of nitpicking than they really deserved, and I don’t doubt that some of The Martian‘s more striking plot twists will be savaged in the same way.

Oh well, there’s no pleasing some people. Speaking for myself, I found The Martian to be much more enjoyable than I would ever have expected a Ridley Scott-directed SF movie to be. The film is immaculately realised and – in terms of its setting – thoroughly plausible, but, more importantly, Scott seems wholly focused on simply telling the story, rather than dwelling on landscapes and set dressing. I might even go so far to say that this is challenging the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven as my favourite Scott movie.

As I said, The Martian sets out to be a number of things – a convincing piece of hard SF, a full-blooded adventure story, and a character study in human resilience, to name but three. Does it succeed perfectly at all of these things? No, not really – but it comes close enough to be considered a terrific achievement as a piece of film-making. It is sure to be lumped in with Gravity and Interstellar when people talk about this type of movie – but for once, the comparison is entirely justified. This is a seriously good, seriously entertaining film.

 

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Okay, so it’s January, and that means a certain class of film occupying all the theatres. It’s part of the turning of the year, and I really shouldn’t be surprised, but the current succession of ostentatiously awards-hunting factually-based dramas is starting to get to me a bit. Sorry about that, but it’s true.

Making the latest pitch for Oscar glory, and an admittedly strong one, is 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen (the other one). McQueen (the other one)’s first film was a searing account of a man on hunger strike. His second film was a searing account of a man suffering as a martyr to sex addiction. It should probably come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that this latest offering is not a searing account of a lovely little old lady who raises fluffy bunny rabbits, but – and I hope I am not overstating the case here – an extended travelogue through a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery.

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The ever-reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, an affluent professional violinist living in New York in the early 1840s. Solomon’s happy life with his wife and children is torn to shreds when he takes an engagement to perform in a series of cities further south in the United States. All initially goes well, but then he is plied with drink and awakens to find himself in irons, in a slave pen.

Yes, someone has realised there is a tidy profit to be made in kidnapping free-born black men from the north, shipping them to the slave states of the south, and then selling them at auction. And this is the fate that befalls Solomon, a fate which the film depicts in some detail.

This is Ejiofor’s film, for he appears in practically every scene and delivers the kind of performance which has Oscar-winner written all over it, but he is supported by a succession of big-name white actors who turn up to play his various persecutors and tormentors – Paul Giamatti (who, funnily enough, played another slave trader in the first film I ever reviewed online), Cumbersome Bandersnatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender; all of them turn up and none of their characters is wholly sympathetic – indeed, almost all of them are complete monsters. The only decent white man with any real presence in the film is played by Brad Pitt, who – to be fair – gives a very creditable performance.

However, neither the quality of the performances, nor the measured direction of McQueen (the other one), nor John Ridley’s thoughtful script, nor Hans Zimmer’s powerful score (much of which admittedly sounds like bits of the Inception soundtrack, reused) can disguise the fact that watching 12 Years a Slave is a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish. There are numerous beatings, stabbings, lynchings, and rapes, most of them pretty graphically depicted. The ending of the film is not entirely downbeat, but the fact remains that this film is almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value.

In this respect it reminded me of the similarly-depressing Grave of the Fireflies, which I finally saw last year. I concluded that this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point. In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the point that Steve McQueen (the other one) is making is that slavery was an awful thing. But does this really need saying? Does anyone sane still seriously deny this fact?

I mean, you could make a film about one of the great plagues which  devastated Europe in the middle ages, and meticulously portray the entire cast dying in bubo-encrusted agony after lives of squalid misery, and it would be a faithful depiction of an actual historical happening, but why would any audience pay to watch something like that? What would be the value to it?

I suppose McQueen would argue that so many of the injustices and social problems which beset modern western culture are a consequence of its former complicity in the slave trade that a film like this is still of immediate contemporary relevance, but I’m not sure – nor do I think that 12 Years a Slave‘s unflinching succession of horrors is the most accessible way of handling this subject.

I might even go further and suggest that there’s something slightly skewiff about the very focus of the film. It clearly aspires to be an uncompromising account of total authenticity – but the fact that the central character comes from the northern US and lives a lifestyle recognisable to a modern audience, rather than being someone captured from another culture or born into the condition, seems to me to be indicative. It’s as if the director is aware of the need to keep the story accessible to a non-black audience, even if this results in it appearing to suggest that being enslaved is somehow more noteworthy and abhorrent when it happens to someone from a western cultural background.

(Personally I was struck by the (admittedly broad) parallels between Ejiofor’s tribulations in the first act of this film and those visited upon Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes: provocative though I know this suggestion is going to be, I think you could profitably interpret Planet of the Apes as a post-slavery allegory.)

But anyway. This is a well-made, serious, and not entirely unaffecting movie, but it’s still bloody depressing for the vast majority of its running time. You can obviously argue that this necessarily goes with the territory, but I’m not completely sure that I’d agree. I can’t quite shake the impression that McQueen is more interested in cursing the darkness than in lighting candles. I’ve had it with the January detox: give me something first and foremost intended to entertain, please.

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