Benedict Wong

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

06/05/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Another Marvel, another Multiverse – and am I the only one who’s growing a little weary of this device? It worked wonders in the Spider-Man franchise, but can it do the same for my other old go-to comic favourite, Doctor Strange? Well possibly, but I have to admit the main thing that draws me to this is the presence of Sam Raimi in the director’s chair.

Raimi has released some great movies over the years: The Evil Dead and its super-charged sequels, as well as A Simple Plan and Drag Me to Hell – but it’s a while since he’s had a chance to strut his cinematic stuff. While he’s always been a director who dances to his own tune, can he successfully apply those considerable talents to Marvel’s famously constricting template?

The answer is, ‘sort of.’

DSITMOM starts, appropriately enough with a dream sequence, where Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) witnesses a twisted, evil version of himself attacking a teenage girl. But is it a dream? When, shortly afterwards, Strange encounters the girl in real life, she turns out to be America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has the ability to travel across the multiverse with ease, though (rather conveniently) she doesn’t know how she does it. Or, for that matter, why. Nor can she explain why she’s being pursued by a giant one-eyed octopus. But hey, these things can happen, right?

Sensing that she’s in danger (no shit, Sherlock), Strange seeks help from Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), only to discover that she’s not going to be any help at all. Demented by the recent death of her partner and terrified she might lose the two children she loves so much (the ones who don’t actually exist), Wanda decides to steal America’s power for her own wicked ends, an action that will cause the girl’s death. (Incidentally, for someone who’s supposed to be a genius, Strange seems to be very adept at putting his foot in things. He’s the one who messed everything up in No Way Home – and now this.)

I’m not going to relate any more of the plot because, frankly, it’s as mad as a box of frogs (I suppose the title should have warned me), but the more important question is, can this nonsense hold together as a movie, and the answer is ‘just about.’ DSITMOM is essentially a series of frantic action set-pieces, loosely strung together. Though they are occasionally eye-popping and sometimes make me feel that I’ve inadvertently dropped a tab of acid, they never really gel into a convincing story arc.

Different versions of popular Marvel characters keep popping out of the woodwork and in many cases are actually killed, but because we know they’re not the real McCoy, there’s no real sense of threat here. Cumberbatch gets to portray several different Stephens, which was probably more fun for him than it proves to be for an audience. The parts that work best for me are the Sam Raimi moments, the few scenes where he’s allowed to employ the tropes of low budget horror – and of course there’s the inevitable cameo from Bruce Campbell, which is always welcome. But too often Raimi’s singular vision is swamped in the sturm und drang of state-of-the-art special effects.

Elsewhere, actors of the the calibre of Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Patrick Stewart are called upon to utter some truly naff dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Michael Waldron.

The usual post-credits sequence suggests that Strange will be even stranger in the next instalment, if and when it happens. The enthusiastic applause from the mainly teenage audience at the end of this screening suggests that I may well be in the minority here.

Doctor Strange (and possibly Mr Raimi) will be back. Watch this space.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Personal History of David Copperfield

21/01/20

I arrive at the cinema expecting great things. The trailer for Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield promises a rollicking ride through one of Dickens’ best loved tales, and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

The promise is kept: it is a rollicking ride. A bit too rollicking, if I’m honest, careening  through the 350,000 word novel at breakneck speed. Well, it’s a lot to fit into two hours. There’s nothing here I’d lose – no padding or filler required – but I’d be tempted to add an extra thirty minutes to the running time, just to give the story space to breathe.

Dev Patel is the eponymous hero of his own life, and very good he is too, all genial affability despite his social-climbing and urgent need to impress. Born a gentleman, he’s forced into poverty when his widowed mother remarries, and his stepfather (Darren Boyd) takes against the boy. Young David is not too worried at first: the poverty he’s witnessed so far – visiting Peggotty’s quirky, loving family in their upturned boat/house – has given him a romanticised impression of the working person’s lot. A back-breaking job in a bottle factory soon disabuses him of this worldview, and he determines to find a way to live a better life.

Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie form a show-stealing double-act as David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood and her cousin Mr Dick respectively; in fact, there are almost too many perfectly-captured vignettes featuring too many wonderful actors. There’s Anna Maxwell Martin playing school mistress Mrs Strong – whoosh! There’s Benedict Wong as the ever-thirsty Mr Wickfield, and Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter, Agnes – whoosh! Daisy May Cooper’s Peggotty is warmly, wittily portrayed; Morfydd Clark’s Dora Spenlow a frothy, silly delight. I do like the sense of breathless chaos: the lack of deference to period drama genre-norms; the diverse casting that proves it can (and should) be done. There’s just no time to focus in on anything before it’s gone.

In short, each scene is beautifully rendered; each character cleverly drawn. But the story feels a little superficial, with none of the darkness or political poignancy of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield