Doctor Strange – Film Review

If ever a genre were in need of an innovative shot in the arm, it’s the superhero movie. After a bruising blockbuster season – in which Batman V Superman, X-Men Apocalypse and Suicide Squad all flopped hard – fans are crying out for something other than a “hyper-choreographed, gravity defying, city-block destroying, CG fuckfest,” as James Mangold so eloquently put it in his upcoming Logan script.

Doctor Strange is intended to do just that for Marvel. Like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, this tremendously trippy tale of an arrogant surgeon who becomes a sorcerer after a career-ending car accident invites us to explore previously unseen corners of the MCU. But while opening the door to parallel dimensions allows director Scott Derrickson to create some eye-popping visuals, such spectacular delights are of little use when pinned to a story that’s hemmed in by the same old flaws.

Benedict Cumberbatch (a dab hand at playing irascible geniuses) is the titular high-flying neurosurgeon whose luxurious lifestyle is destroyed when his nimble fingers are mangled after a high-speed car crash caused entirely by his own uncontrollable hubris. Strange’s desperate search for a remedy strips him of all his worldly possessions – including an envious watch collection – and eventually leads to a secret order hidden in a remote part of Nepal where Tilda Swinton’s enigmatic Ancient One is persuaded to school him in the mystical arts.

As a sceptical Strange reluctantly opens his mind to the unknown potential of his new powers, so to do the boundless possibilities of this new multiverse become astoundingly clear. In a surreal sequence which recalls Bowman’s trip through the vortex in 2001 Space Odyssey, Strange is thrown on a whistle-stop tour of his new dimensions as he’s tossed into outer space, sucked into an event horizon and spat out into a psychedelic realm where his gnarled hands sprout hundreds of tiny hands. It’s a spectacle unlike any other superhero movie we’ve seen before.

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Derrickson also uses the cutting-edge special effects to do so much more with the action than just blow things up. The fight scenes are as slick and punishing as ever, but here they are set against Inception-style rotating corridors, folding cityscapes and, in one bravura sequence, a Hong Kong street that’s imploding in reverse. At times it feels like a Bourne film that’s been dropped into an Escher painting.

But what use are such dazzling set-pieces when the story they illustrate fails to compel? While screenwriters Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill should be praised for neatly subverting the portal-opens-above-a-city-finale trope – taking the Doctor Who route of talking the enemy into submission – the rest of the time we’re stuck with the same predictable pace and life lessons of the origin story. There’s nothing surprising about Strange’s redemptive arc. Does his exposure to unknown worlds humble his intellect? Of course it does. In turn, does this help him realise the lives of others are just as important as his own? You won’t need the Ancient One’s clairvoyant powers to have a good guess.

Cumberbatch still impresses as Strange. He’s very good at being insufferably brilliant and socially callous, and he knows how to inject just the right amount of twinkling charm to keep Strange likeable. His co-stars fair less well. Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor are wasted as Strange’s love interest and training buddy respectively, while Mads Mikkelsen is starved of screen time and lacks enough motivation to convince as the terrible, universe-ending threat we’re told he’s meant to be.

Making Doctor Strange was a risky move by Marvel – one that doesn’t quite pay off. The introduction of new, mind-warping dimensions has certainly freshened up the visual landscape of superhero movies, but until the filmmakers behind them start to push the same boundaries with their storytelling, the genre will remain trapped in its current cookie-cutter rut.

Runtime: 115 mins; Genre: Superhero; Released: 25 October 2016;

Director: Scott Derrickson; Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill, Jon Spaihts;

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton

The Young Pope – TV Review

With a personal life so tumultuous the tabloids once resorted to phone hacking to keep tabs on him, Jude Law would not be most people’s first choice to play the Pope. But it’s exactly that notorious disregard for living life by the rule book that makes Law the perfect man to front The Young Pope, Sky Atlantic’s lavish drama about the murky underbelly of the papacy.

Law plays Lenny Belardo, a conservative cardinal who becomes the first ever American Pope after a covert Machiavellian scheme in the conclave backfires spectacularly. Like any brash young American, the newly-monikered Pope Pius XIII immediately sets about shaking up the Catholic establishment upon taking office. He demands Diet Cherry Coke for breakfast, refuses to allow any merchandise to bear his image, reverses a Vatican smoking ban introduced by his predecessor – but only for himself – and appoints Diane Keaton’s trusted nun to be his eyes and ears in the papal palace.

It’s searing stuff from Law – certainly his best work since playing Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley. He’s handsome, brooding, vain, and plays calculated indifference superbly. He also looks rather fetching in those white robes – if you’re into that sort of thing.

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With such a zealous rejection of its traditions, you might expect this to be a scathing satire on the Catholic Church. In fact, The Young Pope has more universal themes on its mind, exploring the seedy power plays and politics that lay behind the implementation of God’s will. Lenny’s aggressively secular antics spark a cooly cerebral duel with Silvio Orlando’s unscrupulous Cardinal Voiello, who had hoped to manipulate the young Pope and become the true power behind the throne.

When Voiello despatches his minions to dig up some dirt on the Lenny’s orphaned youth, the new Pope retaliates by forcing the priest-confessor to break the secrecy rule and reveal the Cardinal’s darkest sin, which weirdly turns out to be having a bit of a statue-fetish – Hey, who among us hasn’t gazed up the Venus of Willendorf and at least thought about it? Really? No-one? Okay then…With so many ambiguous, vindictive men conducting shady deals and deceptions through the halls of power, it’s little wonder the show has been dubbed House of Cardinals.

Yet, The Young Pope is very much it’s own beast, largely thanks to its Oscar winning director, Paolo Sorrentino, who has firmly stamped his style on the show. The stylised silent group scenes, woozy camera angles, unsettlingly opulent set designs, a surreal mood somewhere between wonder and anxiety, Sorrentino’s signature is all over this thrilling drama.

That style is in keeping with a show that is gloriously unhurried. Every scene has plenty of room to breathe, letting Pope Pius’ thinly-veiled threats hang in the air as his enemies wait in clenched silence. It makes it hard to know exactly where The Young Pope is going, but when the journey is this lush, magnificent and exhilaratingly intriguing, it compels you to keep watching.

Class – TV Review

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In a Doctor Who spin-off promising a darker take on the Whoniverse, a tear in space-time allows aliens to flood into the present day and only a ragtag band of social misfits stand between these monsters and the destruction of the human race. No, it’s not Torchwood, but Class, another ‘adult themed’ Doctor Who spin-off which, by some bizarre temporal anomaly, has arrived on BBC iPlayer today, exactly ten years after Torchwood first aired on our screens.

Like Russell T Davies’ Cardiff-set series, Class tries to signify its more mature intentions by splashing plenty of sex, death, swearing and bloody violence throughout each episode. But exactly how is the show different from Torchwood, you might ask? Well, it follows a group of sixth formers at Coal Hill School – which has inevitably been given a glossy makeover as an academy – as they investigate extraterrestrial incidents rather than a covert team who investigate extraterrestrial incidents. And that’s about it. For all Class’ stylish production values and committed performances, it lacks the distinctive voice it will need to standout in this era of high-quality on-demand telly.

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The haphazard first episode, which is poetically titled For Tonight, We Might Die, races desperately to set-up its new take on a classic Who setting, introduce all its teen heroes and still cram in some gory monster peril before the credits roll. It’s a bewildering experience that turns the episode into a huge info dump as characters reel off their defining traits in breathless rants while the plot hinges on the all too familiar trope of teenagers getting ready for prom night.

Things improve markedly in the calmer second episode, which is awfully titled The Coach the the Dragon Tattoo, which smartly focuses solely on sporting prodigy Ram as he copes with a shock death and the loss of his leg whilst battling a murderous creature. Yet it remains a struggle to grasp exactly what the show wants to be. Class seemingly wears its influences proudly – the bonkers humour of Doctor Who, the high school setting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the teens-searching-for-purpose premise of The Fades – but rather than subverting the cliches it uses them as a crutch for its own lack of imagination.

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It doesn’t help that the Doctor pops up in a flurry of daft gags and screwdriver waving at the end of episode one to conveniently save the day and set-up the students as guardians of the Coal Hill rift. It’s a cameo that, while superbly performed by a much missed Peter Capaldi, feels tonally awkward to what’s gone before.

Despite the frenetic pacing, each episode will struggle to hold your attention for the full 45 minutes. Partly, this is because the monsters – the Shadow Kin, who are apparently constructed from smouldering briquettes, and an unconvincing CGI dragon – have under-developed and outright baffling motivations (sharing a heart across time and space, anyone?), just like every other forgettable monster-of-the-week in Doctor Who’s bursting rogues gallery.

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More troubling, though, is that the characters simply aren’t compelling enough to carry the series. They’re just the usual bunch of stock characters we’ve seen before in countless sci-fi dramas. There’s the odd newcomer (Greg Austin), the adorkable girl who’s inexplicably unpopular (Sophie Hopkins), the super cool jock with hidden depths (Fady Elsayed), and the precocious youngster who’s great with equations but less so with people.

The worst served is Katherine Kelly’s Miss Quinn, the students’ reluctant mentor whose icy attitude and snarky one-liners (“We are DECORATING”) quickly become one-note because showrunner Patrick Ness fails to explore her intriguing backstory as a freedom fighter who is enslaved to protect a prince. This is not to criticise the cast, who all give spirited performances; there’s plenty of potential in these characters if only Ness and his writers would take the time to let them develop.

With its great cast, glossy style and intriguing bunch of characters, there’s still every chance Class could yet become something truly special – just as soon as it decides exactly what it is it wants to be.

The first two episodes of Class are available now on BBC iPlayer

Divorce – TV Review

In Pulling and Catastrophe, Sharon Horgan turned her filthy, profoundly funny eye to the minefields of falling in love – the awkward dates, the sex, the, er, unexpected pregnancies… Divorce sees Horgan transporting her particular brand of tragic romance to the other side of relationships (and the Atlantic), charting the marriage of well-off suburban New Yorkers Frances and Robert (Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church) as it disintegrates in a storm of deadpan humour and icy bleakness.

Those thinking the presence of Parker makes this an unofficial follow-up to Sex and the City, beware: the brittle Frances is a world apart from the glamorous, romance-seeking Carrie Bradshaw. Yet another brilliantly flawed Horgan anti-heroine, Frances is a tangle of flaws and contradictions, gamely played by Parker. A sympathetic friend and a caring, if under appreciated, mum to two teenagers, Frances is initially easy to empathise with and root for as she strives to balance a demanding career with an even more challenging home life.

But gradually Horgan and Parker peel back her layers to reveal a bitter, selfish monster who impulsively embarks on an indulgent affair with Jermaine Clement’s egotistical, granola-making artist. It’s this darker side to Frances that truly resonates; the frustrated adult who’s trying to rediscover the hopeful, adventurous person they always wanted to be but who is also struggling to come to terms with the realisation that they no longer exist.

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Not that Frances is the only focus here; Church’s Robert is harder to warm to than his soon-to-be-ex wife, coming across as distant and bluntly passive-aggressive. The superb opening scene sees Robert stride up to inform Frances that he’s just defecated in a coffee tin because she was taking so long in their shared bathroom. But again we slowly come to see his softer side, one that is left vulnerable and totally blindsided when Frances blurts out that she wants a divorce in the aftermath of a friend’s disastrous 50th birthday party.

Unlike so many British comedy writers before her, Horgan’s mordant wit has more than survived the leap across the Atlantic. “How do you go from eight years of a happy marriage to wanting to blow someone’s head off?” Frances muses in the first episode. A script peppered with such caustic one-liners make this show worth the watch alone, but it’s Horgan’s brutally honest exploration of marital disharmony that marks Divorce out as a true original.

Picking up on all those tiny little moments that can turn affection into unbearable resentment – humming along to the car radio, repeating jokes instead of actually laughing at them – Divorce shows the confusing, messy reality of ‘conscious uncoupling’ and yet somehow still manages to find the laughs in life’s ridiculous horrors.

And yet, the show lacks the warmth of Pulling and Catastrophe. Whereas Sharon and Rob will engaging in blazing rows and deeply personal insults, it’s tempered by the understanding that they have a genuine affection for on another. For Frances and Robert, that spark has long since been snuffed out by the grinding monotony of married life. But while Divorce sometimes feels relentlessly bleak, more often than not it finds the exact sweet spot between edgy humour and scathing observations. Basically, it’s vintage Sharon Horgan.

The Girl on the Train

There’s something missing in The Girl on the Train. And we’re not just talking about Haley Bennett’s restless housewife, whose sudden disappearance drives this psychological thriller. Tate Taylor’s efficient adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ eponymous best-seller might have all the makings of a gripping who dunnit, but somehow the end result struggles to keep attentions engaged.

Emily Blunt plays the titular girl on the train Rachel, a lonely divorcee who uses her daily commute to fantasise about the lives of two happy couples as she passes their homes on the way to New York. The first is home to Megan (Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), beautiful and seemingly perfect lovers who represent everything Rachel has lost. The second is Rachel’s former home where her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) is shacked up with their former realtor Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and the baby girl she could never have.

Many an eyebrow was raised when the location switch to New York’s commuter belt was first announced, but in many ways the new setting feels like an even better fit for the novel’s themes. The spacious, white picket-fenced homes sat right on the Hudson river are the perfect embodiment of the idyllic suburban lifestyle Rachel desires, while their wide view windows are much more suited to spying on neighbours from a passing train than the densely-packed terraces of London.

It’s Rachel’s obsession with the gorgeous Megan that forms the crux of the mystery as Rachel spots her dream girl smooching an unknown lover on the balcony one evening. The next morning she wakes to the news that Megan is missing as the police come calling to find out what she saw the day before. The only problem is Rachel can’t remember a thing because she blacked out in a drunken stupor before making it home that night.

Blunt convincingly portrays Rachel’s drink addiction – with a little help from Tate’s hazy camerawork – which is used effectively to build doubt around her version of events. Unable to recall her movements from the night before, Rachel is an unreliable narrator and her protestations of innocence become increasingly shaky as she remembers she was more involved in Megan’s abduction than she initially thought. The plot sticks surprisingly close to the source material, but for those who haven’t yet read up on the story there are plenty of shocking twists and turns, which should make for a compelling watch.

And yet, The Girl on the Train offers very few reasons to feel invested in the outcome of the investigation. It appears as though much of the characterisation was lost in transit from page to screen – Anna’s voice, in particular, is completely absent here. Theroux’s Tom is just a bland suburban husband wearing a regulation suit and tie. Evans’ Scott is possessive, bordering on abusive, towards his wife, but the reasons behind his actions are never explored. Rachel’s troubling behaviour while under the influence has also been softened – most likely to make her appear more likeable – but this takes away her edge and turns her into a sad, pathetic drunk for whom no-one seems to care.

Bennett’s Morgan is by far the most intriguing presence here, a disturbing tragedy revealed to be the cause of her self-destructive actions, but by necessity she spends much of the plot out of sight and out of mind. With the novel’s multiple perspectives removed in order to streamline the narrative for the screen, there are very few layers left to the protagonists. It’s fine for characters to be unlikeable, but they should never be this dull.

The Girl on the Train is not the first grip-lit adaptation to stumble on its way to the big screen – 2014’s Before I go to Sleep is a recent example – but it fails to reverse the trend. There’s an enticing thriller to be made out of this story – not to mention some commendable performances – but Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson struggle to find a way to bring to life what was so compelling on the page.

Runtime: 112 mins; Genre: Thriller; Released: 5 October 2016;

Director: Tate Taylor; Writers: Erin Cressida Wilson (script), Paula Hawkins (novel);

Cast: Emily Blunt, Hayley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Luke Evans, Justin Theroux

The Gears of War movie is still a thing

In the works since 2007, news of a Gears of War movie has been so thin on the ground of late, we assumed the project had been consumed by a Locust horde. But apparently Universal are still determined to bring the video game to the big screen.

Speaking at the official launch for Gears of War 4, Coalition boss Rod Ferguson confirmed the movie is still in development and even hinted that its plot may be completely different from that of the games, which follows gruff soldier Marucs Fenix in his battles against the Locusts.

“I think you have to let the movies be the movies,” Coalition boss Rod Fergusson hinted. “They’re two different mediums, and two different audiences in some cases, and I think some video game movies in the past have failed because they tried to make a movie for gamers.

“If you have this great IP with a deep backstory and lots of lore that you can make interesting stories out of it’s great, but if you just go after the gaming audience then it isn’t going to be a successful movie.”

No director or writer are in place yet, but producers Dylan Clark (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Scott Stuber (Central Intelligence) have been tasked with finding a way to bring the franchise to life on the big screen.

Gears of War 4 is out on 11 October.

Female shortlist revealed for Han Solo Star Wars spinoff

So far, all we know about the young Han Solo Star Wars spinoff movie is that Alden Ehrenreich will be the one stepping into Harrison Ford’s shoes as the grumpy nerf herder. But now news arrives of the female actors looking to snag a lead role.
According to Variety, Tessa Thompson (Creed), Zoe – daughter of Lenny – Kravitz, and Naomi Scott (soon to be Pink Ranger in the upcoming Power Rangers reboot) have all screen tested for the mysterious role, which, given it’s set before a New Hope, is unlikely to be a young Princess Leia. Sorry, Star Wars fans.
In other casting news, Donald Glover is still the frontrunner to play Han’s buddy, and one-time Judas, Lando Calrissian, with a second round of tests set up in the film’s London production office before an official announcement is made.
Once all the main players are in place, filming is expected to begin early next year on the film – still pithily titled Untitled Hans Solo Star Wars Anthology Film – with Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller at the helm.
It will be the second Star Wars spin-off movie following this year’s Rogue One, which is due out 16 December.
Whatever it ends up being called, the young Hans Solo movie is expected to arrive in theatres in May 2018.