Sam Raimi

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 Unholy

19/05/21

It’s a red letter day for B&B. We’re back in a genuine cinema for the first time since September 2020!

Naturally, we’re excited for the event and, it must be said, a little apprehensive too. We’re still intent on taking all necessary safety precautions. But the main problem is one we haven’t really anticipated: there isn’t a great deal of quality content to choose from. Having sat grimly through Peter Rabbit back in the day, we’re in no great hurry to watch its sequel. Judas and the Black Messiah is very good, but we’ve already seen that online. And Mortal Kombat? Hmm, thanks, but no thanks.

In the end we decide on The Unholy. Based on a novel by the late James Herbert and produced by the ever dependable Sam Raimi, this does at least seem to offer the kind of frissons that a big screen will help to amplify – and, for the most part, we’re pleased with our choice.

Down-on-his luck journalist Gerry Fenn (a gloriously rumpled Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is out chasing stories for the two-bit publication he currently works for. Back in the day, Gerry was a big name in journalism, but was caught fabricating stories and publicly disgraced. Nowadays, he’s reduced to chasing a rumour about a cow with some alleged satanic graffiti on its rump. However, his luck seems to change dramatically when he stumbles across what might just be the scoop of his career.

In the remote town of Banfield, a teenage girl called Alice (Cricket Brown), mute since birth, has suddenly discovered the power of speech after experiencing a vision featuring a woman called ‘Mary.’ A miracle? Alice’s guardian is Father Hagen (William Sadler), who is somewhat sceptical about the whole thing, but it isn’t long before Alice is summoning others in the local community to stand in front of an ancient tree near her uncle’s church to pledge their allegiance to this ancient spirit. Gerry milks the opportunity and forms a close bond with Alice, a girl who every newspaper in America wants to interview… and then the Catholic church gets involved in the form of Bishop Gyles (Cary Elwes) and Monsignor Delgarde (Diogo Morgado). Suddenly, Gerry is back in demand.

But of course, as is usually the way with these theological horrors, Mary isn’t the benign creature she initially appears to be (a fact that doesn’t come as a great surprise to viewers as we’ve already been tipped off in a grisly pre-credits sequence). It transpires that she is pretty quick to mangle anyone who stands in her way and what she wants for starters is the adoration of the entire community of Banfield.

The Unholy, written and directed by Evan Spiliotopoulis, is decently handled, wielding nicely-timed jump-scares and featuring a delightfully conceived supernatural adversary, with a distinctive limb-twisting method of moving about. There’s some dark humour in the mix too, with local businesses getting in on the act offering everything from ‘We Follow Mary’ T-shirts to bottles of ‘Miracle Girl’s Tears.’

My only real issue with the film is that the ending attempts to have its theological cake and eat it. I’d respect it more if it stuck to its guns and went a little bleaker.

But hey, the main thing here is that cinemas are open again! Hurray!

Returning viewers should note that, at present, the trailers and adverts are taking up rather less time than we’re used to, so please ensure you get to your chosen showing for the advertised time, or risk missing the film’s opening stretches.

You’re welcome.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Spider-Man: Homecoming

09/07/17

Of all of Stan Lee’s famous superheroes, Spider-Man was always my favourite when I was growing up. While I dipped in and out of many of the other comics, this was the one I kept coming back to.

On the big screen, Spidey has had a somewhat chequered career. Sam Raimi managed to knock out a couple of decent films with Tobey McGuire in the red suit, but most people would agree that his third installment didn’t really work. Then of course there was the appropriately named Mark Webb’s attempt at a reboot with Andrew Garfield brooding in the title role. Webb gave us two movies, neither of which really brought anything fresh to the party, so the news that the team at Marvel were finally getting the opportunity to give their most celebrated creation a canter around the paddock didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. (The rights to the character belonged to Sony for those earlier pictures – here they’ve agreed to a co-production with Marvel.)

Happily I was wrong. This is easily the best Spiderman movie so far and, arguably, one of the best superhero movies ever, made doubly enjoyable largely by virtue of the fact that director Jon Watts has jettisoned the usual grim and grimy approach in favour of something lighter, fresher, and a lot funnier. And thankfully, he’s skipped the ‘Spiderman origin’ aspect completely, because by now we all know it by heart, right?

Fifteen year old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is working hard on his ‘internship’ with Tony Stark/Ironman (Robert Downey Junior), which pretty much means that he’s left to his own devices, patrolling his local neighbourhood in his spare time, taking care of petty criminals and the like, under the supposedly watchful gaze of Stark’s chauffeur, Happy (Jon Favreau). But when, as Spiderman, Peter comes up against Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his gang, things become a lot more complicated. Toomes has made use of salvaged alien technology left over from the last Avengers dust-up and, utilising that, has restyled himself as super villain The Vulture. The trouble is, Peter’s attempts to alert Happy to this new threat largely fall on deaf ears… and meanwhile, he has to negotiate the kind of problems that every teenager goes through – passing his exams, fitting in with his peers and dealing with a powerful crush on a classmate – in this case, Liz (Laura Harrier).

What this new film gives us, finally, is a credible teenage hero. Neither McGuire nor Garfield managed to really convince as high schoolers. Holland, such a powerful presence in The Impossible a few years back, is incredibly appealing here, displaying an almost puppylike eagerness to please his mentor, Stark and also pulling off some expertly-timed slapstick pratfalls. And the credibility extends in other directions. At last, in Toomes, we have a believable villain, a man motivated not by some obscure desire to destroy the world, but simply to better himself and his family after being screwed over by the big corporations. Aunt May is not the white-haired elderly widow we’ve come to expect but, as played by Marisa Tomei, she’s a gutsy, interesting character, doing her very best to bring up her nephew.

Despite the involvement of six screenwriters, the sprightly script keeps us guessing and, at one point, even manages to throw a great big googly ball at us that I really didn’t see coming.

Homecoming has the kind of chutzpah that should keep everybody happy, from devoted comic book fans to parents simply looking to give their kids a fun ride at the cinema. Make sure you stay in your seats until the end credits have rolled – the film has one last, very funny scene, to send you out of the cinema with a great big smile on your face.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney