Chiwetel Ejiofor

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 Old Guard

22/07/20

Netflix

Charlize Theron’s steady advance into the realms of the action hero continues apace with this Netflix Original, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and based – unsurprisingly – on a comic book by Greg Rucka. Theron plays ‘Andy’ (or Andromadache of Scythia, if you want to be more formal about it), a centuries-old warrior princess. She’s the leader of a group of immortals who spend their spare time as mercenaries, jetting off to the world’s war zones to offer help to those who need it – kicking much ass as they do so.

The team also features Booker (Matthias Schoenarts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), characters Andy has encountered at various points across the world’s turbulent history, none of whom has much of a backstory – or at least not that the writer has bothered to share with us. When the team’s latest mission turns out to be a double cross, they quickly realise that somebody wants to capture them, and it becomes clear that CIA operative, Copley (Chiwetel  Ejiofor in a rather thankless role), is a key player in this operation.

Meanwhile, young GI, Nile (Kiki Layne), is wondering why a supposedly fatal injury she’s recently acquired in the line of duty hasn’t finished her off. Could it be that she’s the next new recruit for Andy’s team? Sure enough, Andy is soon showing her the ropes…

To be fair, The Old Guard isn’t the total debacle that many reviews have labelled it. It’s hokum, for sure, but it’s niftily directed hokum, which features several developments you don’t often see in a mainstream punch ’em up. Women are placed at the forefront of the action, for instance, while Joe and Nicky are lovers and proud to declare the fact to anyone who’ll listen.

But the story doesn’t always convince. We’re told that members of the team are immortal until ‘it’s time to die,’ which seems to be a case of having your cake and eating it – while Copley’s actions are frankly incomprehensible, lauding Andy and her crew in one breath and ratting them out in the next. His involvement with ruthless scientist and all-round bad egg, Merrick (Harry Melling), is unconvincing to say the least. What exactly are his motives?

Still, this is sprightly enough to pass a couple of hours with ease –  even if the obvious attempt to set this up as the first in a series is a tad optimistic.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

17/03/219

This Netflix Original marks actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut. He also wrote the screenplay, based on the book by William Kankwamba, the ‘boy’ himself. It’s a charming, assured production, even if the ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-can’ title rather robs the film of any possibility of suspense.

It’s the mid-noughties and the Kankwamba family live in Malawi in the little farming village of Wimbe. Trywell (Ejiofor) is struggling to make ends meet because the land he works on, after years of irresponsible tobacco farming by Western companies, is alternately flooded or drought-ridden. Since the failure of the last crop of grain, the inhabitants of Wimbe are slowly starving to death. Trywell’s son, William (Maxwell Simba), is desperate to receive a proper education but here admission to a school has to be purchased with hard cash and Trywell has his work cut out just keeping his family fed, so school fees are an unaffordable luxury.

William has long had a sideline in fixing people’s transistor radios, something he seems to have a natural flair for – and, when he manages to salvage an old turbine from a local scrapyard, an idea begins to form in the back of his mind, something which he believes could make his family’s life a whole lot easier. But in order to realise that ambition, he will first have to persuade Trywell to part with one of his most treasured possessions…

It’s a gentle, heartwarming story, made all the more resonant for being based on real events. Ejiofor is terrific as Trywell and Aissa Maiga impresses as his long-suffering wife, Agnes, determined to head off the burgeoning conflict between father and son. But it’s young Maxwell Simba, making his acting debut here, who is the beating heart of the film. He does a good job of conveying his character’s hopes and ambitions, his stubborn refusal to give in when all the odds are stacked against him.

As I said, the outcome of the story is never really in doubt and, ultimately, it takes too long to arrive at its inevitable conclusion. But this is the tale of a remarkable and resilient young man; it’s well worth seeking out.

4 stars

Philip Caveney