Patrick Stewart

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

Logan

03/03/17

Like many other cinema-goers, I’m getting close to superhero overload. Much as I enjoyed the output of Marvel and DC in my comic-reading childhood, the plethora of recent movie adaptations is starting to feel oppressive. But the trailer for Logan suggests that writer/director James Mangold’s take on the X-Men saga has something fresh to offer, so I resolve to give it a chance. And it’s largely a good call.

Unlike most other superheroes, Logan – or Wolverine to use his stage name – has only ever been portrayed by one actor, Hugh Jackman. Here, the term ‘super’ hardly applies because we see him towards the end of his career, a battle-scarred, embittered survivor, addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs and barely holding down a job as a stretch limo chauffeur. (A scene where he is called upon to drive a rowdy hen party is particularly effective – has it really come to this?)

Oh sure, he can still sprout a set of quality steak knives from his knuckles when circumstances dictate it but even this causes him considerable pain. His old mentor, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is also in a bad way, semi-senile and afflicted by violent fits that cause all manner of problems (and not just for him). The two former X-Men live in a secret desert hideaway, tended by their albino mutant servant, Caliban (Stephen Merchant making a credible stab at a sort-of straight role). Caliban’s super power is that he has a highly developed sense of smell, which let’s face it, as super powers go is somewhat underwhelming, but he’s also a dab hand with an electric iron, which means that Logan always has a clean, pressed shirt to wear for work.

Things get complicated when Logan is introduced to Laura (Dafne Keen) a child who has been transformed by evil scientist, Dr Rice (Richard E. Grant), using genetic surgery so that she’s now a chip off the old adamantium block, with all the same skills as Wolverine and a tendency to kick off at the least provocation. She is, in the weirdest possible way, Logan’s daughter. It turns out that there’s a whole bunch of genetically modified kids on the run and Dr Rice and an army of gun-wieldng henchmen are determined to recapture them. Bred originally as super-soldiers, they have proved to be failures (too ‘human’) and now need to be eliminated. Logan has little option but to lend them his support.

Much running, leaping and fighting ensues. Logan’s habit of shish-kebabbing the heads of his enemies is particularly grisly and the film occasionally hangs on to its 15 certificate by the skin of its teeth, but the various chases and skirmishes are skilfully devised and genuinely exciting, even if it feels as though the film would benefit from being twenty minutes shorter. Like most movies of the genre, it also features a plot hole the size of Sumatra. If Dr Rice is such a genius, why hasn’t he realised that sending in a hundred men armed with conventional weapons isn’t the best way to go when a single adamantium bullet would stop Logan in his tracks once and for all? But that, I suppose, would be a very short and very unsatisfying story.

As it stands, Logan is an effective metaphor for the process of ageing and, in a strange way, an elegy for the superhero concept itself. Mangold has taken some bravura risks with the X-Men format here and they largely pay off, making this one of the most watchable of Marvel’s recent endeavours. I’ve only one real complaint. The trailer uses Johnny Cash’s fabulous version of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails to great effect. As the credits roll on Logan, we’re fobbed off with a different and far less appropriate Cash song and this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

But musical misgivings aside, this is well worth your time and money.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Green Room

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13/05/16

Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film, the low budget revenge drama Blue Ruin, ticked enough boxes to make him a director to watch. Green Room is a rock-horror vehicle that cranks everything up to eleven, and features the kind of visceral carnage that’s not for the faint-hearted or the weak-stomached.

Third division rock band the This Ain’t Rights are gigging their way around the Pacific North West of America, getting from place to place by siphoning petrol from other vehicles and playing the kind of dives that bring them around six dollars a piece. After a particularly bad night, an embarrassed promoter fixes them up with a gig at his cousin’s place and warns them that the audience will be ‘an unusual crowd’ – by which he means that they are a bunch of shave-headed, Neo Nazi supremacists led by Darcy (Patrick Stewart in an uncharacteristically nasty role, featuring an occasionally wonky American accent).

After an unpromising start, (the band kick off the gig with the Dead Kennedy’s classic – the one that dismisses Nazis in an fairly uncompromising manner) but after that, the band go down quite well and they are just congratulating themselves on being paid a decent fee for a change when they discover the body of a young woman with a knife. Unfortunately for her, it’s stuck in the side of her head. What’s more, the management seem very reluctant to let the band leave and before they know it, they find themselves holed up in the titular green room, wondering if they are going to escape with their lives.

In tone, the film is closer to some of the body shock films of the 70s – as individuals are hacked, bludgeoned and shotgunned to death, the tension begins to wrack up to almost unbearable levels. Anton Yelchin as bassist Pat is the nearest we get to a lead role here and Imogen Poots puts in a decent turn as Amber, a girl who is unlucky enough to have both the haircut from hell, and the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Saulnier’s muse, Macon Blair, has a small but interesting role as Darcy’s right hand man.

Everything builds to a ferocious crescendo, and it’s clear fairly early into the proceedings that  this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of haemoglobin. As a former band member myself, it recalled some of the worst gigs I ever played at, but thankfully, things never got quite as bad as they do here.

Watch this only if you can tolerate scenes of excessive violence. Things get very bloody.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

X Men: Days of Future Past

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07/02/15

Of the many superhero franchises out there, (and there does seem to be an awful lot of them) the X Men films are the ones that interest me the least, so perhaps it’s not really surprising that I’ve waited this long to catch up with the latest instalment. It seems to me as po-faced and inert as the rest of them and somehow the bewildering array of mutants with the power to do ‘incredible’ things – bend metal, set objects on fire, affect the weather, make balloon animals… (OK, I made the last one up, but you catch my drift?) somehow never manages to ignite my interest, let alone suspend my belief.

DFP opens in a gloomy dystopian future (aren’t all futures like that in the cinema?) where colossal killing machines are on the verge of wiping out Mutantkind and where Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart sit around looking constipated, while other, younger mutants run frantically around being killed (or are they?It’s that kind of movie.) In a last-ditch effort to save the world, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back in time to the year 1973, to try and prevent the introduction of the very events that have ignited this grim future. Once there, he has to reconnect with Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy) and persuade him to lend a hand. There then follows a convoluted storyline that’s based around the assassination of JFK and there’s even a cameo by President Richard Nixon (Peter Camancho), who it seems might be just the man to initiate a future disaster. Meanwhile, Doctor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) has created mutant-seeking robots and is itching to turn them loose…

Amidst all the ponderous twists and turns, DFP offers one truly brilliant sequence, the scene where Quicksilver (Evan Peters) runs around in super-fast mode, altering the potentially fatal consequences of a police shootout. It’s extraordinary and all too brief and there remains the conviction that this was the set piece that director Bryan Singer was planning all along and that the rest of the film was just an excuse to set it up. Sadly, Quicksilver doesn’t have much else to do in the movie, which is a shame, because if there’d be more of his antics, this review might have been a tad more enthusiastic. But for me, this was overly complicated nonsense, expertly mounted, glossily filmed and featuring a host of talented actors, all of whom needed every ounce of their skills in order not to look bored.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney