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2016-17 Premier League Midseason Review

We have reached the halfway mark of the Premier League’s 2016-17 season. (OK, almost halfway. Matchday #19 isn’t finished playing until January 1st. So I’m jumping the gun). Like before, we can take a swift look through what has happened to every club and also make a recommendation on a possible transfer target that they can look to bring in during the winter window. Let’s not wait any longer.prem-alexis

Arsenal: The Gunners appeared to start off slowly — losing to Liverpool and drawing against Leicester — and then they came to life. Thirteen games unbeaten in the League had seen them climb to the summit. With Alexis Sanchez leading the line and Mesut Ozil scoring instead of assisting, the Gunners have been able to beat most opposition. Back-to-back 2-1 losses to Everton and Manchester City set Arsenal back down to 4th with a 9-point gap, but there’s no reason to believe they cannot climb out of that. The key will be to get key pieces back — such as Hector Bellerin, Shkodran Mustafi, Danny Welbeck and eventually Santi Cazorla. They also need to start holding teams back and collecting clean sheets.
Verdict: A good run brought back by poor outings against immediate rivals.
Transfer Wish: Expect 1000 links to Wolfsburg’s Julian Draxler. The Gunners could use someone else creating in the final third.

AFC Bournemouth: So far, the Cherries have been living according to type. They beat the teams worse than they and they lose to teams that are better than they are. That said, they’ve been a fun side to watch and have given us one of the games of the season in their 4-3 comeback win against Liverpool. Much of the blame for their losses goes to a defense that has shipped 31 goals. In their quest for goals, Eddie Howe’s men also concede a lot. But at least they’re in the mix of teams in the middle of the table. Plenty of teams would switch spots with them.
Verdict: They continue to be a team worth watching but get beat badly.
Transfer Wish: More steel in midfield or defense to help cut down on goals.

Burnley: Things have not been as easy for the Clarets in the Premier League as they were in the Championship. Vokes and Gray lead them in goals but together they’ve only 6. Meanwhile, their defense has already surrendered 28 goals so far (they gave up 35 all of last season). To be fair to them, 10 of them were shipped in just 3 matches — Chelsea, Leicester and West Brom. They’ve had a good run at home: 6 wins, 1 draw. For the Clarets to avoid sliding into the relegation fight, they need to start picking up more points on the road — only 1 draw away from Turf Moor.
Verdict: Not been pretty, but they’re doing things right to survive.
Transfer Wish: A proven Premier League goalscorer would help to gain more points.

prem-kanteChelsea: But for the minor blips against Liverpool and Arsenal, the Blues have pitched a perfect game so far this season. They’ve won convincingly against most opponents and thrashed teams from Everton to Manchester United to Bournemouth. They’ve managed to win tight games and already have 11 clean sheets to their name. The success of Antonio Conte’s reshuffled 3-5-2 system has led them on a run of 12 wins since the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal. Led by Diego Costa’s 13 goals and Eden Hazard’s 9 goals, as well as the imperious work of N’Golo Kante’ in the middle of the pitch, the Blues look like a team that isn’t going to stop winning.
Verdict: The team that’s setting the pace. FYI, every season they’ve led by Christmas, they’ve gone to win the league.
Transfer Wish: Another central defender who’s more at home in a back 3? Napoli’s Koulibaly will be strongly linked.

Crystal Palace: 16 points from a maximum of 54 is relegation form and it has cost Alan Pardew his job. What exactly will Sam Allardyce do to right the ship? That’s a good question. Their record hides that they’ve lost 9 games by a single goal — including 1-0 defeats to Spurs, West Ham and Chelsea. How much different could things have turned out if some of those losses turned to draws or even wins? They’ve had a good return of goals from Christian Benteke (8) but are desperate for more from other players. The current squad won’t have long to impress the new boss.
Verdict: A bad first half means they’ve little room for error in 2017.
Transfer Wish: Someone who can help create goals.

Everton: At first glance, a 7th-place spot would indicate things are going normally at Goodison Park. They’ve drawn points off Tottenham and Man City and beaten Arsenal and Leicester. Yet they’ve also lost to Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford. At times, the defense has looked like it hasn’t improved from last year’s, which isn’t a good sign for Ronald Koeman. At least, they’ve had Romelu Lukaku in impressive form, scoring 10 goals so far. Unfortunately, that’s as many as their next 5 goalscorers combined. That’s not good enough for a team with Top 4 aspirations and only highlights the flaws in defense when they make a mistake. What happens if Lukaku is sold for astronomical money though?
Verdict: On course for another midtable finish.
Transfer Wish: A striker that can bang in the goals

Hull City: Ah, remember the good old days of August 2016? Back when Hull had shocked everyone and won back-to-back against Leicester and Swansea? They were top of the table then. Even a 1-0 loss to Man United didn’t seem to damper spirits and the Tigers took 7 points out of their first 4 matches. Then the bottom fell out: 4-1 loss to Arsenal, 5-1 loss to Liverpool, 2-0 loss to Chelsea, 6-1 loss to Bournemouth. 11 losses in 14 matches. The worst goal differential in the league with -25. The fewest goals scored in the league with 14 goals total. And nailed on to the bottom with 12 points. If they cannot manage to conjure up more goals, they won’t be long for the top flight.
Verdict: A dream that quickly turned to nightmare.
Transfer Wish: Goalscorers, defenders and a miracle worker.

Leicester City: The bloom is off the rose. Last year, the Foxes lost only 3 times for the entire season. So far, they’ve already lost 3 times as much! Big 4-1 losses against each of Liverpool and Manchester United are the lowlights of poor form away from King Power Stadium as they’ve yet to record a win on the road. Much of the reason is the loss of Kante’ (is it any surprise Chelsea are top of the table while Leicester languish?) but there’s also the average seasons by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Neither has been the talisman they were last season. There’s also a question as to the form of the defense of Morgan, Fuchs, Simpson, etc. The Foxes have already given up 31 goals when they surrendered only 36 all of last season. A change in form is a must in the new year.
Verdict: The second-worst title defense by any Premier League team.
Transfer Wish: A Kante’ clone? Someone who can help shield the back 4

prem-maneLiverpool: So far, so good, right? Though they’ve had the occasional blip — losing 2-0 to Burnley or dropping a game they were winning at Bournemouth —  but the Reds have taken to Jurgen Klopp’s style like ducks to water. They’re far and away the best scoring side in the Prem — 45 goals so far. Their form has been equally good at home and on the road — beating Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton away from Anfield. Led by Sadio Mane’, Lallana, Firmino and Coutinho, Liverpool look like a side reborn, fast and deadly. Will that speed remain in the new year as FA Cup duties enter into the equation? If there’s any concern, it’s that they’ve only had 5 clean sheets so far. Improvements on defense wouldn’t hurt this team keep their title chase going.
Verdict: Looking very much like a contender thanks to a potent attack
Transfer Wish: A world-class defender or two to help shore up the backline

Manchester City: A high-flying start through August and September saw the Citizens atop the Premier League. Dropping games against Spurs, Leicester and Chelsea as well as points to everyone from Everton to Boro have resulted in City sliding back from the league leaders. Some of that is down to the absence of captain Vincent Kompany and the issues the backline has had — only 4 clean sheets this season being the result — as it also deals with adapting to new keeper Claudio Bravo. Some of it has been due to absences, whether injuries (Gundogan) or suspension (Aguero, Fernandinho). You still gotta expect Pep Guardiola will figure things out and have City in the mix come the end of the season.
Verdict: A stumble here and there, but so far involved in the title fight.
Transfer Wish: The best defender they can find.

Manchester United: At first glance, the season Man United have had wouldn’t seem to be worth all the stories and the rage that at times seems ready to swallow it all. Really, besides the 3-1 loss to Watford and the 4-0 thrashing Chelsea gave them, there isn’t a result that is horrible. Yes, they’ve conceded late against Arsenal and Everton and struggled to beat teams at other points. But Zlatan Ibrahimovic is scoring for fun, Juan Mata and Paul Pogba are a strong midfield partnership and David De Gea continues his normal form. If they could get healthy, Jose Mourinho may find a better side than has appeared at times. They need to start turning draws into wins.
Verdict: Not an auspicious start but could still finish in Top 4.
Transfer Wish: Someone who can replace Michael Carrick and connect defense and attack

Middlesbrough: To be fair to Boro, they’ve not had that poor a time in the Premier League — a 3-0 loss to Liverpool their worst outing so far. They’ve managed to take points from Arsenal, Man City and Leicester. And they’ve both beaten and been beaten by the teams around them. They’ve conceded only 20 goals so far — much better than any other team in the bottom half of the table. Their problem is scoring, as they’ve only netted 16 goals so far — tied with teams in the relegation zone for least in the Prem. Alvaro Negredo, their top scorer, has 5 goals. They need a way to turn those 1-goal losses into draws if not wins to ensure they don’t get sucked into the relegation battle.
Verdict: Solid in the back but tame up front
Transfer Wish: Another goalscorer to help steal points off teams

prem-vvdSouthampton: New boss, new side, same old Saints. Halfway through and they’re in 8th place with a run of 6 wins, 6 draws and 6 losses. Not surprisingly, they’re stronger at St Mary’s than they are away from it (4-3-2 at home vs 2-3-4 away). A 4-1 loss at home to Spurs, however, pops some of that home mystique. They’ve only had Charlie Austin for a short while and yet he still leads them in goals. Their leading assist maker is midfielder James Ward-Prowse and he’s started only 6 matches. Were it not for Fraser Forster and the form of the defense by Virgil van Dijk, Jose’ Fonte, etc who knows where they’d be. The fear for Claude Puel is if a bigger club offers the moon for van Dijk what will happen to his backline.
Verdict: Doing well but could yet be even better.
Transfer Wish: Besides keeping VVD? Someone to create more chances and goals.

Stoke City: So Stokealona really hasn’t taken shape this year. The Potters are still having to scrounge and grind results like in years past. But their once-stout defense is nothing like the one in years past. They’ve had 4-1 lossses three times this season (to Man City, Crystal Palace and Liverpool) and a 4-0 loss to Spurs. In fact, they’ve lost 1-0 only twice — so when Stoke lose, it’s likely a big loss. They’ve struggled to score goals at times — with Joe Allen leading with 5 so far. That’s as many as Marko Arnautovic, Wilfried Bony and Jonathan Walters have combined. They’re getting by but they’ll need more to keep their Premier League status.
Verdict: Not been pretty but they’re still in the fight
Transfer Wish: Someone who can partner with Joe Allen and create goals

Sunderland: It’s tough to say the Black Cats aren’t where everyone expected. 4 wins and 2 draws. 31 goals conceded, 16 scored. 14 points and in the relegation zone. They’ve lost 8 games by a single goal. So perhaps they’ve been unlucky. Considering how they had to scramble to replace Sam Allardyce, it would be unfair to find too many knocks against them. That said, they are extremely dependent on 34-year-old Jermain Defoe, who leads in goals (8) and co-leads in assists (2). Should he go down for any length of time, I shudder to think what would happen to them. You have to expect David Moyes will have this team fighting till the end. It might be a tall order, but they’re not dead yeat.
Verdict: In a relegation fight but remain feisty.
Transfer Wish: A striker that can take some of Defoe’s burden off him.

Swansea City: What can be said about the Swans? They went on an eleven-match winless run between their 1-0 opening day victory against Burnley and their 5-4 bash against Palace. They only had one more win after that (3-0 vs Sunderland). Getting only 1 win cost Guidolin his job. Doubling that effort to 2 wins cost Bob Bradley his job. Where they look next is anyone’s guess. The new boss will find a side with some talent (Fer, Llorente, Sigurdsson) which has scored 21 goals but a defense that has conceded a league-worse 41 to have them at the bottom of the table with 12 points. Good news is only 4 points can get them out. Bad news is they’re going to have to turn form around fast.
Verdict: A disaster on every level.
Transfer Wish: Defenders. Lots of defenders.

prem-kane-eriksenTottenham Hotspur: A quick glance would tell you that Spurs are having another good year. They have the second-best defense in the league (giving up only 13 goals so far). They’ve yet to lose at their home away from home in Wembley. They’ve only lost twice — both tight affairs away to Chelsea and Man United. Their young side led by Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane is scoring and assisting while their defense has survived the injury to Toby Alderweireld. The key for them will be to turn some of their draws — Everton, Liverpool, West Brom, Leicester, Arsenal, Bournemouth — into wins. They’re right on the edge of the title run. A few results go their way and they could find themselves setting the pace.
Verdict: They haven’t lost a step from last season.
Transfer Wish: Another creative outlet in midfield? Just in case Eriksen goes down?

Watford: It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Hornets are sitting in midtable comfort. What is though is that they’re doing it thanks to the form Etienne Capoue, who’s leading them with 5 goals. Oh, Troy Deeney is still there, scoring 4 and assisting 3. But the form of last year’s leader, Odion Ighalo is surprising — only 1 goal and 1 assist. They’ve still scored a solid 22 goals and conceded an average 30 goals — 6 of which they shipped against Liverpool. They’ve managed to beat Man Utd and Everton and remain a team capable of shocking a bigger side from time to time. Which is likely as good as it will get for them.
Verdict: On pace to continue life in the Premier League
Transfer Wish: Someone to shield the defense if Capoue is going to keep attacking

West Bromwich Albion: If the Baggies had a more middle-of-the-road season, they’d have road kill on top of them. They’ve beaten all the teams you’d expect them to beat, like Burnley, Leicester, Watford and Swansea. They’ve lost to all the teams you’d expect them to lose — Arsenal, Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool. Salomon Rondon, Nacer Chadli and Matthew Phillips have done all the work up front. They have only had 3 clean sheets all season long — so any help for their defense wouldn’t hurt. Fact is Tony Pulis has them right where they should be expected. Now the quest will be to stay there.
Verdict: A good first half that will need to be turned into a full season.
Transfer Wish: Another defender that helps them keep opponents at bay.

West Ham United: A year removed from Upton Park and the Hammers seem to be missing their old stomping grounds. They’ve won 4 matches in the new Olympic Park but scored only 9 goals. They’ve dropped points against West Brom, Southampton, Boro, Stoke and Arsenal — so it’s not just losing to “bigger” sides. Much of this is the falls to the loss of form of last year’s talisman, Dimitri Payet. While his 6 assists lead the club, his 2-goal tally is way below his mark. Where the Hammers would be without Michail Antonio and his 8 goals is a question, I doubt they’d want answered. Put simply, the Hammers need to start scoring more and to find a way to turn those 8 losses into draws, if not wins. Middle of the table may mean a good run ends with them in European competition. It can also mean a relegation fight if they aren’t careful.
Verdict: A disappointing fall after last year’s high
Transfer Wish: Someone to score more and help them win more.

prem-afcLet me end with my Team of the First Half. Since it’s become the hot new thing, I’m going with a 3-5-2 formation.

GK: Courtois (Chelsea)
D: Azpilicueta (Chelsea), van Dijk (Southampton), Walker (Tottenham)
M: Hazard (Chelsea), Mane’ (Liverpool), Eriksen (Tottenham), Capoue (Watford), Kante’ (Chelsea)
F: Costa (Chelsea), Sanchez (Arsenal)

Bench: Lloris (Tottenham), Koscielny (Arsenal), Lallana (Liverpool), Allen (Stoke), Ibrahimovic (Man Utd), Defoe (Sunderland), Lukaku (Everton)

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My Ten Favorite Comic Book Movies

cmb-coverTime for another Top 10 list. This one is inspired by the exhaustive rankings list done by Dave Gladow who managed to rank every single superhero movie out there (http://davegladow.com/every-comic-book-movie-ranked-mostly/).  I’ve seen a lot of them, but even I will not sit through the messes that were Catwoman or Kick-Ass 2 or Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.  (My masochism only goes so far).  Nor do I mean it to be as set in stone.  Movies will shift as opinions change and time allows movies to age.  Also,the following just missed the cut: Batman Begins, Blade 2, Captain America: First Avenger, Dr. Strange, Hellboy,  Superman I, Spider-Man 2, Watchmen, X-Men: First Class.

  1. Kingsman: The Secret Service

I’ll admit that there’s a fair bit of a mix here between James Bond and Agent Cody Banks going on. But this adaptation of Mark Millar’s The Secret Service gets three things right: 1. It’s funny. There’s enough levity and humor in here to make the movie a breeze.  2. Its leads in Colin Firth and Taron Eggerton are likeable and rootable.  You want to see them win. 3. It’s just fantastical enough to be a comic book movie. The super spies who are trying to keep a mad genius from having humanity destroy itself.

Highlight: The colorful explosion scene set to Pomp and Circumstance. Nearly fell off my chair laughing.

  1. X2: X-Men United

I really debated between having this entry and the equally good X-Men: First Class.
Ultimately this won out because it does a great job of encapsulating both the totality of the X-Men’s core argument as well as being an improvement in every way on the original X-Men movie. cbm-x2A lot of what the other X-Men movies have done, this one did first and did really well. (I still think the Nightcrawler White House assault is better than Quicksilver’s sequences). But it’s the ability to combine multiple storylines — Storm & Jean’s search for Nightcrawler, Logan & the kids fleeing into the night, Magneto & Xavier & Stryker — into one that makes it the best X-Men movie for me.  

Highlight: Tough to go away from the White House attack, but I’m going to go with the attack on Xavier’s School.

  1. Deadpool

I gotta admit that I’m not the biggest Deadpool fan as he is in the comics. Oh, he’s a great way to deconstruct the genre. However, sometimes he can be too much — like too many chillies in your chimichanga. What this movie got right though was the balance between Wade’s antics and the overall story he was in. I maintain this is the first comic book rom-com we’ve seen. It’s interesting that, through all their fucked up lives and tribulations, the relationship between Vanessa and Wade is one that is open, honest, fun and true. It’s what anchors the movie and keeps it from becoming a satire. Even though there’s plenty of funny, action moments.  

Highlight: The year of celebration between Wade and Vanessa? Or the Captain Deadpool montage?

  1. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

I always say I love Guillermo Del Toro. And while part of me wanted to put Blade 2 somewhere on this list, it had to lose to one of the Hellboy movies. What The Golden Army gets right is that it’s as much about Hellboy as it is about his world. cmb-hellboy-2Though they’re not fighting Nazis or demons in this instance, the duality between Hellboy trying to preserve the world of man and Prince Nuada trying to destroy it for having nearly wiped out his creates a new dynamic. That’s what I love about this movie most: it’s a fight between characters that doesn’t shy away from the good and bad qualities of humanity nor giving just cause for its heroes and villains to fight.  Plus the art design, the creature effects and the way all the weirdness of Mike Mignola’s classic comics combines with Del Toro’s sensibilities.  Nearly 10 years and we’re no closer to a conclusion to this trilogy though.

Highlight:  The Troll Market sequence is so chock full of visuals and characters and designs. And then there’s a fight!

  1. Iron Man

Most superhero comic books lose a ton of their steam the moment the main character returns to their alter ego.  Who wants to walk through Peter Parker’s high school life when Spider-Man is battling Doc Ock?  Or see Bruce Wayne deal with corporate deals when there’s Batman taking on The Joker? Somehow Robert Downey Jr, by his sheer force of personality, manages to make Tony Stark’s journey not just interesting but fun. Watching Stark be an asshole to Rhodey or to his robots while tinkering and creating what will be the Iron Man suit is half the enjoyment of the movie. The other half is seeing him using it against the Ten Rings and against the Iron Monger.  I’ll grant you that the final battle isn’t as exciting as final battles tend to be but, by then, you’re just on board with the plan.

Highlight: Seeing Iron Man in action for the first time.

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

It’s interesting how a character created in the 1940s and revived in the 1960s has managed to tackle some of the more interesting 21st Century dilemmas.  Don’t get me wrong: ultimately, The Winter Soldier is about the punching and the flying and the superheroing.  BUT in there also lies ideas about security versus freedom and about the role of technology in a free society. The Russo Brothers — guys best known for directing sitcom episodes — manage to make a movie that’s heady and also fast-paced; that’s fun without being silly.  And with Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L Jackson and Sebastian Stan all nailing their roles, it never feels like the stakes don’t matter for Cap or those around him.  

Highlight: The opening ship rescue where Cap quietly takes out a team of terrorists before going mano-a-mano versus Georges St. Pierre!

  1. Superman 2

I almost wanted to merge Richard Donner’s Superman 1 with Richard Lester’s sequel. They’re basically one long, continuous movie (and that was the way they were originally going to be).  cmb-superman-2And while Donner’s movie has all the mythmaking, Lester got the action and that’s what broke the tie. I don’t need to explain this too deeply. Chris Reeve was Superman.  Gene Hackman’s Luthor was a smarmy dick. Terrence Stamp’s General Zod was a great addition to the Superman mythos. And the idea of Superman foregoing being Superman to be in a relationship with Lois Lane brought an element of drama that none of the other adaptations have dared try.  Of all the Superman movies, this one is the most satisfying still.

Highlight: Come on now. Has to be the big fight in Metropolis! KNEEL BEFORE ZOD!

  1. The Dark Knight

For a while there, it seemed as any critique of this movie was not allowed. It was like Chris Nolan’s follow-up to Batman Begins was the answer to every comic book fan’s prayers.  The movie that proved that comic book movies could be more than just straightforward colorful adaptations. The Dark Knight is coated in darkness, both in its palate and its tone. Yes, that starts with Heath Ledger’s epic take on The Joker.  But it goes into the fall of Harvey Dent into Two-Face and even the cost that being the Batman takes on Bruce Wayne.  Unlike most other comic book movies or even Batman movies, The Dark Knight makes it clear that being the Caped Crusader costs Bruce dearly — and that not being Batman is something that could be for him. That is, until, he cannot be anything else. The Dark Knight will likely be THE Batman movie for a generation.  

Highlight: The Hong Kong exfil of Lau replete with sneaking in and out of the city and those amazing IMAX shots of Batman gliding.

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy

Without daring to plagiarize myself, I think this movie is damn near perfect as a send-up of so many 80s action sci-fi tropes.  But that alone wouldn’t make it as good.  Deep down, the movie makes it so we care for Peter Quill, for Drax, for Gamora, for Groot and for Rocket.  All the eye candy, all the action set pieces; they work because we want to see these erstwhile heroes succeed. Yes, I’ll grant you that Ronan the Accuser doesn’t quite work as the big bad for this story, but by the time you notice that, it’s too late.  It’s always charming and endlessly watchable.  And all from a story about C-list comic book characters that no one knew or cared about before the movie came out!

Highlight: The whole breaking out of The Kyln sequence is awesome.

  1. The Avengers

Comic book adaptations are hard. Team comic book adaptations are harder.  And yet Joss Whedon manages to do it deftly, easily and make it look so good.  The movie plays to its characters strengths and gives each one of its leads sufficient moments so that everyone knows them and gets to know the stakes for them. Why Iron Man is there and why Thor is there are different reasons and the movie moves them from potential adversaries to allies.  And when it’s time for the battles, the movie delivers on spectacle. That it gives us a villain worth rooting for and that it manages to never feel overloaded are signs of a great adaptation happening. This is the movie that closest came to giving me that sensation of reading a comic book.  cmb-avengers

Highlight: Since the entire last act is a battle, let’s go with the battle between Thor and Iron Man in the forest.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review: “My Back Against the Wall”

rogueone_onesheetaI was 5 when I saw The Empire Strikes Back in theaters (a gift for me and my brother to go with my parents and my aunts and uncles).  It would be 2 years before I saw Star Wars (AKA A New Hope) in a theater and then, by age 8, I saw Return of the Jedi.  I say this to both age myself a bit and to present that I was at the perfect age for the Star Wars saga to hit me.  The tale of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and the rest of the Rebellion against the Evil Empire and Darth Vader is ingrained in me like I’m sure it is for many other children of my time.

But for all the times I watched it, the story always began the same way: with Episode 4’s opening crawl.  The one that read “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.”  And I wondered what they were talking about.  

Rogue One gives that answer.

It is the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a small-time criminal making her way through the Galactic Empire as best she can on her own.  This is because her parents were taken from her by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) for the purpose of completing construction on the Empire’s secret weapon, the Death Star.  Her missing father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) manages to send a message out via defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) that lands in the hands of Rebel fanatic Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). The mission to retrieve the message falls to Jyn, Rebel Intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Cassian’s droid, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Along the way they’ll pick up a pair of wayward warriors who believe in the Force in Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) as well as come face to face with the biggest dangers the galaxy has to offer.

jyn-erso-rogue-one-1024x426I feel like I gave you the short, short version of the plot but I dare not reveal more. Truth is you don’t need much information prior to seeing this movie.  It’s a companion to Episode 4 (AKA A New Hope AKA Star Wars) and you should be able to follow what is a straightforward story without too much trouble.  The Rebels want to find Bodhi and Galen’s message.  They need Jyn to get it since it’s in Saw Gerrera’s hands and he’s not in a sharing mood. Their mission will eventually uncover the depths of the Empire’s power and they’ll face a simple but profound choice: to stand and fight or to cut and run.

What I found was most interesting is that this is a story of the Rebellion grunts; not the big name heroes.  No one is a Jedi — not even Chirrut, who believes in the Force.  Not one of these characters is vested with “Chosen One” status by the plot. Characters who are supposed to be the heroes act in pretty unheroic ways: they kill allies, they lie and keep secrets, they consider surrendering.  Even their position as Rebels does not guarantee that they will find a way out of things or that they’ll do the right thing.  In many ways, it’s what Star Wars has been needing for such a long time.

At its heart is Jones’ Erso, a young woman who had her family taken by the greed of Director Krennic. Raised by Gerrera, she’s a tough fighter and a resourceful thief.  She’s someone without a mission or a purpose.  Her goal in life is to stay a step ahead of the Imperial forces and she cares for nothing and lives for nothing. Until Cassian rescues her and lets her know there’s a chance to connect with her missing father.  This will allow her to start thinking of things beyond her own immediate survival.  But her journey towards believer in the Rebel cause isn’t that easy.  Jones does well with the character, but I’m not going to say she’s the hardest character to root for though. She provides a good anchor to the quest.

r1-k2soThe rest of the team falls somewhere between interesting and expanded cameo. Luna’s Cassian is an interesting take on a Rebel. Perhaps at one point he was the wide-eyed optimist that Luke Skywalker would be, but at this point, he’s lost most of his hope.  He goes along because he’s following orders and because he cannot just abandon things. That said, he’s not a hero — not at the start at least.  Yen’s Chirrut and Wen’s Baze are a wonderful tandem who riff great off one another but they’re tangential to the story.  They’re along for the ride. Ahmed’s Rook is a Macguffin at the start and then a hero at the end, but we learn little about him. I mean, why would Galen choose him to defect? Or was he planning on defecting all along?  As for Whitaker’s Gerrera, it’s a small cameo that ends in an odd way. You get the sense he’s the kind of character that had more story to him than what ended up on screen.

The more interesting performances come from Tudyk’s K-2SO — a voiced-CGI character who is deadpan funny and who comes across as a more realized character — and from Mendelsohn’s Krennic.  He is a careerist and an opportunist who sees in the Death Star project the chance to rise. How he manages to shepherd the Death Star to construction through kidnapping, manipulation and subterfuge only to have it wrested from him at the end causes some interesting interactions between him and major Star Wars characters.  He’s equally smarmy and menacing; embodying the underlying evil of the Empire — the countless bureaucrats and opportunists that are willing to lie, kill and steal to gain power.

Working off a script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, director Gareth Edwards gets the chance to launch the Star Wars Anthology series in fine style.  Rather than being full numbered Episodes in the Star Wars saga, these films would serve as companion pieces — standalone projects that would allow filmmakers to broaden that galaxy far, far away.  Though, from all accounts, it wasn’t an easy ride. Re-writes and reshoots had to happen and you can sort of tell it’s so because scenes that appeared in the first few trailers are not here in the finished movie.  It’s also felt in Michael Giacchino’s score — which he had only four weeks or so to compose — which while evocative of Williams’ classic material, doesn’t quite rise to its level.  rogueone_baze_chirrut

The movie is good.  It is fun.  In a weird way, freed from the Hero’s Journey of the main movies, Rogue One is able to breathe and show us a different aspect of the Rebellion and of the Empire.  These aren’t unified fronts as we’d seen before.  The Empire is full of conniving and nefarious characters.  The Rebels, on the other hand, are not unified at all. They’re uncertain of their goals and are in danger of breaking apart at the seams — Saw Gerrero’s choice to leave them for a more fundamentalist take on rebellion being one example.  The idea that the group we met on Episode 4 was anywhere near a team is shattered here.  In fact, it’s more like the Rebel Alliance is on its way of breaking up on its own before it has the chance to oppose the Empire because the task feels so beyond their means — and that’s before meeting the Death Star.

What this movie does have is action and it has it in spades.  The story propels our characters forward and each action beat moves them towards the next. Edwards manages to build on the three key set pieces of the film — so that each one feels bigger and bigger — until we get to the Battle of Scarif.  The price of admission is paid when that part starts because it’s what we’ve come to see.  And it is epic and the odds are not with our heroes and this time that may mean something.  This sense of balancing on a wire for the Rebels is really pushed here.  

I am trying to stay ambiguous to the big reveals in Rogue One but I’ll say that there’s some surprises both big and small for long-time fans. While some of it is clearly fan service, most of it is meant to connect it with A New Hope so that you can ideally match one’s ending with the other’s beginning in a continuous story.  There are a few key effects though that can work on some and not on others.  Just keep in mind that they’re making a movie that connects to another nearly 40 years old. A little suspension of disbelief is mandatory.  I’d also add that it misses on an interesting chance to tie the Prequels with the Original Trilogy with the Death Star plans — seen first chronologically in Attack of the Clones.  It’s a minor quibble.r1-krennic

Ultimately what makes Rogue One so good is that it’s willing to take us to the Star Wars universe without any safety net.  Jyn and her crew might make it or they might not but there’s no plot armor to defend them. This in turn makes it a very dark film.  One where death is real and sacrifices can go unnoticed.  Jyn has this line about taking a chance then the next one and the next one until they’re all used up or they’ve won.  In a way, that’s what I think will happen to the Star Wars Anthology movies.  They’ll make another one — the Han Solo project — and another until we’ve heard every tale that can be told or filmmakers stop finding a way to dazzle us with stories.  This is a great first step.  One I hope will find its way into the minds and hearts of many young kids for years to come.

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Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them Review: “Fantasy Will Set You Free”

fantasticbeastsposter_0We should not be surprised. Not really.  Not with every studio chasing a franchise with which to anchor their slate of movies. Disney has Marvel and Pixar and Star Wars. Sony has James Bond. Fox has the X-Men. Paramount has Star Trek and Transformers.  Universal has Fast & Furious, Despicable Me and monsters like King Kong. Warner Brothers had Harry Potter — a veritable cash cow — which ended with Deathly Hallows, Part 2.  And despite the continued support for the books, the movies and the studio parks — the Wizarding World of Harry Potter being an awesome stop at Universal Studios — the fact is that they haven’t been able to keep that going as a franchise.  Well, not until now.

Based on the companion to the book series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the hope by Warner Bros is that this movie is the start of a new franchise that expands the Wizarding World and gives fans of the Boy Who Lived the fix they haven’t had since he stood as a grownup on Platform 9 ¾.  And there’s reason to believe there’s a hunger for it with the success of the adapted play, “Harry Potter & The Cursed Child.”  Put simply, the kids and tweens who grew up with Harry, Hermione and Ron haven’t lost their appetite for the Wizarding World.  They just haven’t had anything new to sate them. Until now.

Fantastic Beasts is the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist or expert on magical creatures who arrives in New York in 1927 during his travels studying magical creatures around the globe. This is a different world than the one we know. Magic is meant to be kept hidden; which has caused some wizards to want to rebel against the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) and its President, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). Of these, the biggest threat is Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard who wishes to dominate No-Majs (their term for ordinary humans). Anti-magical organizations like the “New Salemers”, led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), rail against the idea of wizards and witchcraft in broad daylight. And in the middle of all this, Newt confuses his case of magical beasties with that of factory worker/hopeful-baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and several get out. Before long, Newt, Jacob, former Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) are all caught in the chase for the magical animals as both magical and non-magical forces seem drawn towards the conflict their revelation will create.

fantastic-beasts-colin-farrell-as-percival-gravesFor a plot that’s looking to do a ton of world-building and a movie that’s looking to set up a further four films, the thing that surprised me the most was how light it all was.  The movie is quite simple and easy and you’re rarely lost.  Working off the script by J.K. Rowling, director David Yates — who helmed the adaptations of the last three Harry Potter books — does his usual best to build 1920s New York and populate it with magic.  He uses the same visual cues and effects to connect this movie and those that came before. The magic spells work the same way. The duels between wizards move just as those did when it was Harry versus Voldemort.

What’s obvious and interesting is how much more grown-up the Wizarding World is here. Since we’re talking adult witches and wizards and not kids/teens, we get to see speakeasies and we get to see wizard execution chambers. We see the leaders of the wizards ordering the death of young uncontrollable witches and wizards. We see how Aurors like Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) use squibs — people born from magical bloodlines with no powers — like Credence (Ezra Miller) to infiltrate organizations; even when they’re the cause of tremendous pain.  In short, while the movie is aimed at kids and teens, it makes it clear that this is a world without the relative safety net of the halls of Hogwarts or the professors who shepherd their students.

At its heart are Newt and his creatures.  Academy Award-winner Redmayne creates a Newt that is all ticks and sideway glances.  You get the sense from him that he’s not sure of how to interact with the world at large.  He’s more comfortable with his magical beasties than he is with most people. Reasons are hinted at but never stated.  And while we get hints, all the answers to Newt are not revealed here. It creates a character that starts cold and gets warmer but one that remains somewhat distant throughout the movie.  Much of the same can be also said about Waterston’s Tina, whose only goal is to be reinstalled as an Auror and seems fixated on Newt as the way to make it happen. She’s kind of like a big sister who is always stopping the fun by pointing out all the rules that are being broken.  Though the movie wants to set up a Newt and Tina relationship, it doesn’t quite come off as it should. I get the sense that that aspect, as well as Tina, will be plumbed in further movies for more depth.  bowtruckle-newt-fantastic-beasts.jpg

This leaves the heart of the story in the hands of Fogler’s Jacob. As the No-Maj getting introduced to the Wizarding World, it is his experiences that mostly mirror the audience’s.  The surprise is that not only does he do this well, it is wonderful to behold. His Jacob is a good man; desperate for a chance to break out of the doldrum life as a factory worker. He is equal parts amazed and enraptured by the magic, the beasts and by Sudol’s Queenie. The two of them happen to have the meet-cute moment and engage in the relationship that everyone roots for. Queenie is a Legilimens — a Wizard able to read minds — and though limited by her time to a secretary, she manages to be tenacious, courageous and fun. Honestly, Jacob and Queenie are half the fun of the movie and part of me wishes they had dumped their boring counterparts in Newt and Tina.

The rest of the cast does a solid job, even if it’s just placeholders for the further adventures. I’ll point out Farrell as Graves who does a great job of reminding you why he’s such a great actor. He’s both haughty and harrowing as the Head of MACUSA Security who is looking into the New Salemers.  Samantha Morton cannot help but be solidly hateable as Mary Lou while Ezra Miller portrays her adopted son, Credence, with the kind of pathetic and obviously repressed rage that both are memorable.  If there’s any message in this movie, it’s about how the biggest monsters are born when people seek to ignore the true nature of others around them.

Let me give the usual kudos to the people working behind the scenes.  Composer James Newton Howard does a good job of channeling John Williams’ classic Potter compositions and adapting it to 1920s New York.  Fantastic Beasts - Queenie & Jacob.jpgLikewise the production design team led by Stuart Craig and James Hambidge as well as the art direction team led by David Allday and the costumes by Colleen Atwood give us a New York that feels both real as well as magical. All work well under Yates and, as I keep saying, give us a world of witchcraft and wizardry that is both familiar as well as new; that is welcoming and dangerous.  

If it sounds like I’m lukewarm about the movie, let me dispel that right now. I liked it.  When Fantastic Beasts drops its franchise pretenses and shows, it is charming and fun. The bestiary that Newt carries in his suitcase is nothing but eye candy — whether it’s the devious Niffler or the breathtaking Occamy or the fearsome Graphorns.  It isn’t surprising that this is when Redmayne’s Newt comes most alive.  It’s as if that’s when his character is truly alive.  You’re going to want to spend as much time with them as possible. Major kudos to the visual artists at Framestore who bring them alive in such great detail.  

It’s interesting that when the movie forgets it’s a franchise and just goes with the story it’s trying to tell, it is fun. The visit into the suitcase. The escape from MACUSA’s office.  Attracting the Erumpent via mating call.  They’re all highlights because the movie is letting the characters be themselves and free and there’s no sense of rushing to establish some new element.  It is here that the movie’s quality really shines.  Newt, Tina, Queenie and Jacob are being themselves.  They’re allowed to be interesting and courageous and have agency.

Ultimately it is this need to set up the future franchise that holds Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them back. I haven’t even mentioned Jon Voight’s Henry Shaw Sr, a No-Maj media magnate, or his sons.  fantastic-beasts-graphornOr Ron Perlman’s Gnarlack, a goblin gangster. Or the picture of Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) that Newt still carries around with him.  Or the obvious Gellert Grindelwald.  All of them and more are elements meant to populate this more grown-up Wizarding World and expand into further adventures for Newt and his friends. When the movie gets out of its way and focuses on the mission at hand, it is a great time. Enough to still recommend.

Just hope the next one is even better. Warner Brothers will want it to be to keep their new franchise going and fans satisfied.

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Arrival Review: “Time is Not Important; Only Life is Important”

arrival-posterIf you try to check the number of movies about aliens, IMDB will tell you that it’s a list in total of 274 movies. Wikipedia will give you an even longer list that includes everything from sci-fi classics to comedy parodies to adult film parodies.  The idea of little green men or some other type of being from beyond our world coming to Earth is not a new one.  Jonathan Swift had it in Guilliver’s Travels in 1727.  Voltaire used it to satirize philosophers in the 1750s in “Micromegas.” And of course, there’s the granddaddy of them all — the tale that popularized the concept — H.G. Wells’ seminal 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds.    All of these and more have been mined by Hollywood to some effect or another throughout the 20th and 21st Century.  Aliens have been cute lost travelers like in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  They’ve been fearless hunters like in Predator or Alien.  They’ve been menacing conquerors as in Independence Day.  They’ve been insidious infiltrators like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing.  They’ve been benefactors looking for peace such as in The Day the Earth Stood Still. And they’ve been odd creatures we are desperate to understand like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I bring these up because all of them were in the back of my head when I went to see Arrival.  What kind of aliens would it depict? Would they be the benefactors or the conquerors? How would they make contact? Because, in essence, that is the issue at hand in Arrival.  Whereas most alien visitation/invasion movies find a way to get us to what purpose the aliens are here for, Arrival stays in that initial moment and stretches it. And stretches it. And stretches it in order to ratchet tension and build momentum.  

At its heart is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistics professor with above top secret level clearance who has done work for the Pentagon.  She’s a woman traipsing through a quiet life — one full of both joy and sadness.  Her work translating for the military has her called into action when twelve strange and massive ships descend throughout the world.  Unlike other alien movies, they don’t park themselves above capital cities.  The one in the U.S. is in Montana.  There’s others in Japanese waters and over Siberian wastes and in Venezuelan outskirts.  The aliens’ arrival has her join the team led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg).  Working hand in hand with astrophysics lead Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Dr. Banks is given the difficult task of finding a way of communicating with the aliens — whom they take to call “heptapods.”  But how do you establish a line of communication with something that doesn’t even conceive of language as you do?  How can you know if they’re brokering a trade in peace or a threat for war?  And what happens when the twelve other teams around the globe — some serving very different masters than Louise and Ian — come up with entirely different answers?arrival2

Let’s go through the other members of the cast quickly.  Renner tones down a lot of his usual wit to create an Ian who is laid back and sure of things but able to follow Louise’s lead.  He’s right there with her in regards to their awe over the heptapods.  Whitaker and Stuhlbarg do the harder, more thankless job of representing both the government and military overseeing their operations as well as displaying the intense pressure that is sitting over all of them.  Louise and Ian may be looking at the heptapods with wonder, but they see threats — both internal and external.  Mark O’Brien and Max Walker do the work of being the rank-and-file soldiers who are exposed to the outside media pressures and don’t know what to make of the heptapods.  Tzi Ma, Russell Yuen and several others work towards showing the varied responses around the world — some scientists like Louise and others military like Weber.  All do a decent job of portraying a wide variety of human responses to an otherworldly moment.

All that said, Adams is the heart and soul of this movie and it all hinges on whether or not you buy both her internal struggle as well as the hardship she’s given trying to find a way to talk to seven-limbed aliens that speak in inky goo.  Her is a complex role. On the one hand, she’s a linguist given the chance of a lifetime and she approaches speaking to the aliens with wonder.  On the other, she’s a woman that’s balancing deeply personal losses which might compromise her ability to get the job done on time to avert war with the aliens.  She does her normal best for the role and you get to see her go through both journeys towards a resolution that’s equal parts serious drama and science-fiction.

Director Denis Villeneuve has managed to make two different yet strong character-driven movies prior to this in Prisoners and Sicario.  The sensibilities that he brought there he brings to this tale and it’s interesting that, though the movie seems to jump from time to time inside Louise’s memories and out, that we never lose our sense of what is going on.  His vistas of the Montana landing site are beautiful yet haunting.  The links to the other research teams around the globe feel like the kind of thing that we would do in today’s day.    arrival-montana

The heptapods are unlike any aliens you’ve seen in a movie before and their language is entirely like nothing you’ve noticed before. Credit for that should go to production designer Patrice Vermette and supervising art director Isabelle Guay as well as to the folks at Rodeo FX, Hybride, Framestore and Raynault VFX all who manage to create aliens that are so far removed from the “sexy green-skinned alien chick” of the past.  Also major kudos to Stephen and Christopher Wolfram of Mathematica, who worked towards ensuring the “logogram” language of the heptapods is unlike anything we’ve seen before. All of which adds to the tension that the movie builds towards: can Louise actually crack their language in time?

Based on the short story by Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life” and adapted by Eric Heisserer, the movie lives with that Sword of Damocles sense above it.  Like I said above, the movie chooses to not skip towards the resolution of what the aliens want. Instead that is the purpose of the movie and the source of its tension.  What are the heptapods doing on Earth? What do they want? Friends or foes? Is what they’re offering a poisoned chalice or the chance to leap ahead of other nations technologically?  All of this amps up while Louise and Ian are desperately trying to learn their language and understand the heptapods.  Naturally, humans bicker, disagree on meaning and fight.  

I feel like I haven’t told you enough about Arrival but that’s by design.  Major elements to this story should be learned as the story unfolds.  It is surprising in that is both a personal/micro story and an epic/macro story.  It touches on how we deal with grief and loss as well as how societies respond to threats and fear — the natural human inclination to run away from all those emotions failing when they’re staring us right in the face.  It also combines enough scientific hypotheses on language development, sensory perception and Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity to appeal to hard science people.  But folks with no science background don’t need to worry.  It is easy to follow.arrival-logogram

I liked Arrival quite a great deal.  Adams delivers another great performance (expect nominations for awards for her).  It’s interesting that it arrives — pardon the pun — at the moment that it does.  Because its message of uniting to solve problems, of working together, of taking our time to listen and learn to communicate seems so relevant today.  One day humanity may yet make contact with beings from another world.  How will we coordinate a response? What will we say? Will we respond with fear? Or with hope?

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Doctor Strange Review: “It’s A Kind of Magic”

doctor_strange_poster_newOne really has to tip their hat to the ability displayed by Marvel Studios to develop their esoteric, little-known or less regarded properties into massive blockbusters.  I mean, it’s one thing to make a successful Captain America or Incredible Hulk movie. Those characters have entered the popular collective zeitgeist and have been notorious for several decades.  But making movies starring a guy many considered a Batman-clone, a literal god or a cast of little-know C/D characters? Whatever one can say about the two Thor movies or the Iron Man sequels, those suckers made money. Lots and lots of money.  Marvel has done a good job of making sure their characters get the best chance to find an audience.

Even so, tackling Doctor Stephen Strange’s tale had to feel like a tall order.  Created by Steve Ditko in 1963, Doctor Strange is, even more than most characters, a vision of his time. Looking to touch on themes of magic and mysticism, Doctor Strange allowed Marvel’s writers to bring together ideas on everything from Eastern philosophies, ancient mythologies, classical magic and alternate dimensions. It found a small but devoted following in college students, beatniks and people into psychedelia — preceding the movements that would sweep throughout America by a few years. That said, it is all from a 1960s perspective, which, as Marvel found out when adapting The Mandarin for Iron Man 3, does not quite translate so easily to today’s audiences. Still, I spoil nothing to say that they found a way to bring this esoteric character and his world to life. In 3D!

We follow super-talented/super-jerk neurosurgeon Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he shows off for his colleagues like Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and Dr. Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg). He’s a genius. He’s a rock star. And he knows it. He lives fast, expensive and is all about taking care of number one. But like in the comics, it all ends with a horrific accident that leaves him with major nerve damage to his hands — steady hands being kind of a big deal for anyone doing surgery in a patient’s brain.  Despondent and desperate to regain back his old life, he exhausts all his resources until he’s on his last chance. Hearing of a healer out in the far reaches of Nepal, Strange travels out there to try and find Kamar-Taj, where he might have his faculties restored.  It is there that he finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth and her students — among them Wong (Benedict Wong) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).  They will try to assist Strange in finding his way back to health while revealing a world of magic and danger to the man of science.  All of this while the Ancient One’s forces are accosted by her former pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who seeks to bring a force of evil onto our world.doctor_strange-h_2016

That paragraph seems to hold a lot of plot but it isn’t.  For the most part, the movie handles the journey of Stephen Strange along the same rail lines that led Tony Stark from billionaire playboy to Iron Man.  A lot of this movie, in fact, feels similar to the first Iron Man. Rich and talented jerk is brought low and forced to come to grips with who he is and challenged to change in new ways that lead him to become a hero.  That’s a fair criticism of this movie and of Marvel’s formula. In that, however, Marvel Studios is hemmed in by the work laid by Lee, Ditko, Kirby, etc.  They’re not reinventing the wheel because to do so would change who the character is.  All they can do is adapt it for modern audiences and trust that they capture the essence of the character.  

I will say that director Scott Derrickson is an inspired choice to helm this adaptation. A man who’s made his bones making horror movies like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose seems rather well suited for adapting a comic book steeped in lore and mysticism. He manages to give people just enough of the magical mumbo-jumbo without trying to cram 50 years of back story into the movie.  Working with writing partner C. Robert Cargill and with Jon Spaihts, Derrickson gets at the heart of who Strange was and who he will become. They work to give us Strange’s backstory but not be held by it.  In that Derrickson is helped by Cumberbatch’s performance.

By now, everyone has had a chance to get to know all about Benedict Cumberbatch. The erstwhile star of BBC’s Sherlock and an Academy Award nominee for The Imitation Game among many other roles, Cumberbatch was going to break through at some point and it feels like his time is at hand.  Is Stephen Strange a jerk? Yes. But it’s interesting that I never felt him becoming the epic asshole that Downey made Tony Stark.  That’s down to Cumberbatch’s charm and skill.  The accident that sends him on his path is his fault, but the movie doesn’t make it out to be some sort of deserved comeuppance like Stark’s injury/imprisonment.  He’s a selfish jerk, but one who has channeled that selfishness towards good. His fall is one that anyone can empathize with and his quest to regain his old life is all too common.  Cumberbatch also manages to show us Strange’s inquisitiveness and sense of humor. doctor-strange-mordo-wongHe looks at the world like geniuses do: a playground in which to express themselves.  If there’s going to be any challenge to him, it’s going to be learning too much too fast and getting in over his head.  But the movie makes sure we see that Strange is an intelligent man who is willing to learn.  And that becomes crucial when he’s gotta face Kaecilius.

Of the rest of the cast, the three key supporting roles are Swinton’s Ancient One, Ejiofor’s Mordo and McAdams’ Christine.  Let’s tackle them in reverse.  McAdams isn’t called to do much but she does the role of colleague/former flame/support structure well.  I do wonder if there’s more in store for her in a potential sequel. Ejiofor is rather reserved as Mordo. This is understandable as his character is one of a man who’s trying to hold both his immense power and darker nature at bay. He goes from Strange’s senior figure to partner in the course of the film.  If Strange is Lennon, Mordo is McCartney.  The Ancient One recognizes that they need one another to work best.  As for Swinton and the Ancient One…look….Much and more can be written about the issues of casting white actors in Asian roles. Here I’ll say that Swinton does well playing a character that’s meant to be aloof, all-knowing and powerful.  The idea that she’s an old Celt witch is a nice way of avoiding some of the more sensitive issues that Dr. Strange’s backstory has. Swinton can do otherwordly in her sleep and she manages to be an excellent tutor for the world of magic and mysticism Stephen finds himself in.

You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius or the forces that follow him on his quest.  That’s because, if I’m honest, they are secondary in nature to the internal struggle that Strange is maneuvering through. Oh, they matter, but in a way that’s ancillary: they’re a foe for our hero to oppose in the third act.  Mikkelsen is up for the task but his role is minor and, were it done by a lesser actor, I don’t know that it would matter much.  He’s the Anakin Skywalker to the Ancient One’s Yoda — the star pupil who’s fallen to the Dark Side.  But beyond that, who Kaecilius is remains untouched.  How certain is he of his quest?  Is it motivated by seduction from more powerful entities or it it a rejection of finding out ugly truths from the Ancient One?  Any question regarding his character is kinda sorta answered but not dwelled upon.  Some might say a wasted opportunity.

doctor-strange-battleIf there’s any star as big as Cumberbatch in this movie, though, it is the set pieces which Derrickson, cinematographer Ben Davis and editors Sabrina Plisco and Wyatt Smith craft.  Even for a company that’s known for epic battles and unique visuals, the stuff in Doctor Strange is unique. Working with Industrial Light & Magic, they bend and twist the reality around Strange, his friends and his foes so that it looks like stepping into kaleidoscopes or battling in M.C. Escher paintings.  Whether it’s feuding in the Mirror dimension and squaring the number of New York Cities or opening portals to different locales around the globe, it is all visual eye candy.  A tip of the hat also to production designer Charles Wood, set decorators John Bush and Lauri Gaffin and art director Ray Chan and Co. who make sure that Strange is never away from the real world.  Whether it’s a basketball court in New York, a London street, a temple in Katmandu or busy street in Hong Kong that’s been frozen in time, it’s all crafted beautifully.  Here let me be the millionth person to say that anyone looking to see this movie, should do so in 3D. It is worth the price of admission.

I’ll also add a tiny spoiler here: the movie does a good job of not rushing Strange’s character too fast.  There might have been an interest in having the movie end with Stephen established as the Sorcerer Supreme, but they resist it.  While it obviously creates plot going forward — and the movie, like many other Marvel movies, does its job of setting up future properties — it is good that they allowed the story and characters to breathe.  I don’t know how long Cumberbatch’s contract with Marvel is for, but they should look to at least leave as much of a mark as the Captain America movies have in the MCU before he departs.  There’s a lot of untapped material that they can touch upon and that no one — not the other parts of Marvel or DC has brought to the forefront yet.

doctor-strange-tilda-swintonI enjoyed the hell out of Doctor Strange.  It is fun and funny.  It brings in this other piece to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we didn’t know was lacking.  Just as Guardians of the Galaxy opened the MCU to intergalactic adventures, so does Doctor Strange open it to mystical and magical realms — everything from characters like Ghost Rider and Morbius to places like the Dream dimension.  The movie leaves it clear that Strange will take part in the larger MCU but what other adventures will the good doctor engage in after here is a good question.  Whatever they are, you can bet that people will be more than willing to give them a try.

Like I said, Marvel knows how to make good comic book movies.


My 10 Favorite Video Games

VG - GoldeneyeThanks to the work of intrepid WGNO anchor Jacki Jing, I found out that today was National Video Games Day. As one of my favorite hobbies/pasttimes/time-and-brain-cells-killers, I gotta give it up for video games. They’re fun. They can be great ways to waste away sick or rainy days. And given their quality, they can also be quite an unique way to experience a story.  I love to read. And I love movies. But the interactivity of video games cannot be replicated. It allows you to play a story as you want to. To take your time or power through it.  To savor every nook and cranny. We can all beat a boss but we won’t all beat that boss the same way (QuickTime events notwithstanding).

So with that said, I wanted to honor the 10 games I plowed the most hours into.  The ones that had the most impact on me.  The ones that still put a grin on my face and fill me with happy memories. This isn’t meant to be a definitive list nor is it listed in any order whatsoever. Just a simple list and some words as to why these are my 10 favorite video games.

Before we start, the Honorable Mentions List: NFL2K5, Soul Calibur, Rogue Squadron, Mario Kart 64, NFL Blitz, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, Dragon Age: Origins, Assassin’s Creed 2, Command & Conquer, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Castlevania, Fable, Batman: Arkham City, Duck Hunt, Diablo.

With that said…

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64). What can I say about this game that hasn’t been said elsewhere and better?  I’ll admit that I had never played a Zelda game before this one nor have I played another since. It doesn’t matter. This is a beautiful story that has you playing as Link, the Hero of Time, as he tries to rescue Princess Zelda and the kingdom of Hyrule from the evil Ganondorf. Travailing through the various temples, riding Epona, the music…I think this is the first game that made me aware of how big music is to a game. I’d suggest this is the greatest high fantasy game ever made.

Goldeneye 64 (N64).  This Rare gem didn’t invent the first-person shooter. And it’s graphics are dated as hell now (blocky people?) And none of that matters because it was so much damned fun. The single-player was set-up in such a way that it gave you incentives to try it out in 0 and 00 modes. The “cheats” were a ton of fun. But really, it was the multiplayer that made it amazing. Too many a college night was wasted on multiplayer tournaments — where NO ONE was allowed to take Oddjob cause that was a cheat.  Playing 4-on-4 with grenade launchers, proximity mines or missile launchers was a source of endless humor.

VG - TMNTTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (Arcade).  There aren’t better side-scrollers out there. Period. This was one of the first games to take the idea of a party and having it team up to try and progress. There used to be one inside the old Burger King on Williams Blvd in Kenner and me and my brother Al would walk there, quarters stuffed in our pockets, and just proceed to waste them on trying to beat that thing. I’ve tried the home port and it’s just not the same. It’s not as vibrant or as loud or as funny. Picking turtles, fighting the Foot clan, beating the hell out of that bitch, Baxter Stockman, all while trying to rescue April O’Neil from Shredder. It was a simpler time.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox).  Bioware had all the elements here that would blossom into their multi-billion dollar empire.  They had a varied cast of characters. They had different settings, each unique and wonderful to explore.  They had amazing dialogue trees and hard choices. And they had incredible, drop your jaw to the floor surprises. But more than that, they made the first game that felt like a Star Wars movie. The tale of Darth Revan and Darth Malak, set 4000 years before the movies, was one that felt epic and enjoyable. The sequel was 90% great, but this is the game that made me a fan of them.

Mortal Kombat 2 (Arcade). There were a few fighting games I thought to include. But I ultimately had to return to the one I wasted away the most with. Scorpion, Raiden, Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero. How many quarters did I lose to them? How many times did I desperately try to punch in a fatality code? Everyone had their favorite fighter and we kept going at one another for bragging rights.  We got to a point that, when someone broke the lock on the quarters slot, no one said a thing and we kept playing using 2 quarters for a whole semester! Fighting games have gotten better, more intricate and complex. But I suggest they haven’t gotten more fun than this.

FIFA 2006 (Xbox). I love the FIFA series. It’s the one sports series I’ve religiously purchased every year. Not that it hasn’t fallen into the same stale, incremental improvement slide that has taken Madden down. But the leap that it took from 2005 to 2006 was tremendous and finally brought the soccer series into being the giant it would be. FIFA benefits from the licensing power of EA Sports, but that was the first time the video game flowed like the real game. So playing as Thierry Henry or Ronaldinho and trying to score a brace against Bayern Munich or Manchester United was a blast. This is when this series went from being the stepchild to a key in EA’s plans of domination.

VG - BioshockBioshock (Xbox 360). Bioshock and its sequels have, in so many ways, become standard-bearers for the idea that video games are more than just disposable entertainment. That they’re art. It’s not difficult to see why. The design of this game; the look, the colors, the music behind it is amazing. It also features another of those epic mindfuck twists that everyone knows by now but remains incredible.  Gameplay was addictive — a first-person shooter with sweet, sweet powers — and ending in the kind of moral choices that made you have to replay the game again. Rapture remains a vision of both Ayn Rand’s dreams becoming nightmares and of destiny achieved.

Starcraft (PC). I admit that I spent many a wasted hour in the computer lab at CBU plowing through Warcraft 2. But it’s this game that got all my friends to sneak into the business school’s computer lab — which got the new desktops and shiny monitors — to install it so we could spend nights playing it. I’m not surprised the game became ginormous in South Korea. It’s addictive fun — like chess with tiny players which fire lasers and spit venom. The single-player campaigns were good and allowed you to learn about units, but it’s the multiplayer that everyone gorged on. Playing 4 team battles with friends on a Sunday night as the Protoss or the Zerg remains such a fond memory.

Fallout New Vegas (Xbox 360). I debated whether to put this game here or Skyrim.  I ultimately went with Fallout for two reasons: one, it was a game full of dark humor and moments of horror and moments of science-fiction all in one package. Two, because it had a more enjoyable and complete conclusion. But really, the Fallout universe is one that’s harrowing and interesting in equal measures. The nightmare of Cold War America’s sleeps turning into a post-nuclear reality creates the kind of opportunity for social commentary, morality tales and for the kind of silly things that make everyone have a good time. It really took everything Fallout 3 did and made it more fun.

VG - ME2Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360). If I was to have a #1, it’d have to be this one. For all the greatness that is KOTOR (and it’s there), I think ME2 is the pinnacle of what Bioware was building towards.  It’s complex and adult without being serious.  It’s fun without being dumb.  It asks you to explore every corner of its universe and you go with it because you want to uncover everything about it.  This is a game that starts with your character dying and, depending on your choices, could end with you and your every crew member dying. It’s a game that required multiple playthroughs and whose impact was building towards its trilogy’s end. There’s a reason ME3 got so much flak – cause this game built it.

OK, so that’s my list. What’s yours?