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Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016): Written by John Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and G. Robert Cargill, directed by Scott Derrickson.  Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton.  Running Time: 115 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            The shared Marvel cinematic universe has become such a brand of its own at this point, it’s near impossible to review any of its constituent parts in isolation from each other.  It also means that reviewing these things quickly gets very rote- they nearly all have identical strengths and weaknesses, so what you say about one can easily be applied with little alteration to most of the others.  Doctor Strange does not do much to buck this trend, but thankfully it still employs enough visual panache and is more than fun enough to rank it among Marvel’s better origin stories. 

            When we first meet him, Strange is living the life of a slightly classier Tony Stark- exceedingly brilliant, wealthy, part of the upper strata of city life, and a bit of an arrogant prick.  He’s perfectly content in his sarcastic discontentedness until a bad car accident (almost comically bad- you’ll see what I mean when it happens) leaves him with such considerable nerve damage in his hands  that his high-flying surgical career, and with it the glitzy lifestyle he loved so much, is effectively over. 

            Increasingly desperate and bitter, he bankrupts himself on increasingly experimental (and extralegal) and finally drives away his only real friend, Christine (a criminally underused Rachel McAdams).  He finally gets a tip-off from someone who miraculously made a full recovery from similar damage, which leads him to Kamar-Taj in Nepal.  He expects to find a group of brilliant doctors working beyond all bounds of regulated science.  What he actually finds is the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful sorceress charged with protecting the Earth from what lies beyond all bounds of this particular dimension.  Faced with the chance to remake himself into more than what he was, Strange commits himself to learning the magical arts and begins to train under the Ancient One. 

            Like with most origin stories, Strange’s journey of discovery is a fun time.  His lessons are aided by two of the Ancient One’s strongest acolytes, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong).  All in all this is a great and talented cast having a hugely fun time, and the film keeps itself pretty light most of the time.  This is also a half-strike against it, since the movie would have benefited immensely from a deeper dive into the struggle of a coldly scientific mind forced to confront direct evidence that what it previously thought to be “The Truth” was way off. 

            But, Marvel movies never do want to get bogged down in heavy topics, since no one buys a ticket to a Marvel feature for an in-depth examination of the existential.  What IS more problematic is the continued Achilles’ heel of this entire universe; weak villains with rather paltry evil plans. 

            Don’t get me wrong, Mads Mikkelsen looks great and is suitably intimidating as Kaecilius, a former pupil of the Ancient One’s gone rogue, but his plan is just another rendition of Been There and Can We Not Do This Again please?  It’s dropped on Strange (and us) in a clunky bit of exposition that breaks up what had otherwise been a solid and really cool action scene. 

            It’s all par for the course with most entries into the superhero genre, but I’m still waiting for one of these things really brake with standard formula and play for more exotic stakes.  Oh well.  No matter.  For what it is, Doctor Strange is another well-above-average entry into the growing Marvel canon, as its stunning visuals representing the various dimensions and universes Strange interacts with and its top-notch casting push it well above its storytelling flaws.  Toot-toot, all aboard, for the Marvel train still ain’t stopping. 

-Noah Franc 

Review: Transit Havana

Transit Havana (2016): Written by Alex Bakker and directed by Daniel Abma.  Starring: Malu Cano Valladeres, Giselle Odette Diogenes Dominguez Rodriguez, and Juani Santos Perez.  Running Time: 86 minutes. 

Rating: 2.5/4  

            Transit Havana is a film that’s supposed to be about the experience of trans-peoples in the city of Havana, but quite often, it unintentionally morphs into a fascinating tableau piece about daily life in Cuba under the Castros.  Much like last year’s Taxi, it’s a remarkable glimpse into a country and culture Americans rarely get to see.  Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I find it difficult to separate my identity as an American from my feelings towards the film itself, since what often piqued my curiosity the most were the parts that had less to do with the transwoman ostensibly at its core.  This is exacerbated somewhat by the film’s own relative lack of focus. 

            The core of the documentary is a small group of trans-people, including the first known trans-man (who still lives), in Cuban history.  Most of the film consists of simple, slice-of-life glimpses of their daily routines, what sort of jobs they have, and what particular personal challenges they’ve had to encounter in trying to manage their transition. 

            Like many other countries struggling over trans-rights, Cuba is a deeply religious nation, with the Catholic Church serving as a major bedrock of the culture, and one of the most powerful scenes in the entire film illuminates this, when one of the women in question fights with her mother (who has, apparently, never stopped referring to her as “her son”) over her identity, what the priest has to say about it, and whether or not she really is and/or wants to be a woman.  Indeed, the constant struggle between personal progressivism and socially-religious conservatism is an obvious point of similarity between Cuban and American culture, political differences notwithstanding. 

            Another side focus of the film is the active role Mariela Castro, a niece of Fidel Castro, plays in the trans-rights movement.  She takes a prominent place in rights marches, regularly gives interviews on the topic, engages the services of European doctors for full sex change operations, and is the head of Cenesex, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, a governing body that largely dedicates itself to promoting awareness of LGBT issues. 

            Here’s where my Americanness comes into play- it is simply fascinating to me to see a relative of Fidel Castro so prominently featuring in such a progressive cause.  It’s also equally fascinating to hear every third sentence she says in interviews bookended with some variant of “because socialism is the salvation of humanity, of course.”  You can tell this is a rehearsed statement she has made countless times before.

            Another bit potent with meaning covers initial reactions of everyone to the announcement of the recent US-Cuba rapprochement.  I know I was psyched when I first heard about it, and it’s interest to see that, from the other side, I was not the only person to respond positively.  It’s clear that what all these people want more than anything is simply a better and more secure life for themselves and their loved ones, be it from a Socialist Utopia or no.    

            More often than not, the trans-issues within the film almost feel like an afterthought.  They are there, but their moments of power or insight into the nature of the fight for trans-rights in Cuba are scattered, and overshadowed by the moments where the director seemingly decided to just sit the camera down and observe regular Cubans going about the city, often in rather baffling slow-mo.  Little is explained about the relationships its subjects have with each other, what groups they are involved in, etc. etc.  Which I found to be a shame, because a better focus and more info provided to us about the people we were seeing could have made the film more impactful than it is. 

            The best documentaries introduce us to the stories, or at least parts of the stories, of individual lives of particular uniqueness or interest, and there are plenty of people of interest to be found here.  Telling their stories of pain, struggle, and self-discovery is particularly important in these seemingly regressive times.  I just wish they could have been in a movie that slightly better does their tales justice. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Review: Girls Lost

Girls Lost (2016): Written by Jessica Schiefauer and Alexandra-Therese Keining, directed by Alexandra-Therese Keining.  Starring: Tuva Jagell, Emrik Oehlander, Wilma Holmen, Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund, Louise Nyvall, and Alexander Gustavsson.  Running Time: 106 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Jessica Schiefauer. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Girls Lost features a fascinating mix of reality and fantasy.  It’s depictions of the horrors of high school years are brutal in their accuracy, yet its central conceit of a group of teenage lesbians struggling with their burgeoning sexual and gender identities revolves around a twist of the supernatural to push the plot into motion, the sort of mix that seems off-putting at first, but ultimately lends the film its own unique magic. 

            Kim, Momo, and Bella, lesbians all, already carry the stigma of being “the outcasts” for pretty much everyone in their town, but they cope as best they can by tightly sticking together at all times, especially at school where it’s most needed.  Whenever they so much as enter the building the entire tone of the scene shifts, making everything seem vaguely threatening.  I meant it when I referred to these parts of the film as brutal- in one of the most chillingly uncomfortable scenes I’ve watched all year, a group of particularly aggressive guys in their gym class separate one of them, push her against a wall, and try to force her to undress for them.  And if you think any of the teachers would come to their aid, even in clear cases of assault, you can forget it. 

            When not in School Survival Mode, they spend most of their time in a greenhouse, where they tend to all manner of flowers.  In a shipment of seeds, they find a strange one without a label, and decide to find out what it is.  It proceeds to fully sprout into a large, black flower that very night, and upon examining it they find that the flower excretes an oozy, vanilla-smelling liquid, which, when consumed, physically transforms them into boys for the course of a single night, allowing them to wander the town totally unrecognized by their classmates. 

            Momo and Bella find this bizarre turn more amusing than anything else, a way to have some fun at parties without being noticed or attacked, but for Kim, their first night as boys about town touches something deep within her, something she’d previously only suspected was there.  After befriending another boy from their school while transformed (it’s made clear later on he does not recognize her when she’s a girl), she also starts to wonder if she has feelings for him, throwing everything she thought she knew about herself right up in the air.  Is she a girl or a boy?  Homosexual or straight?  How can she possibly find out? 

            The swirling emotional complexities of the changes wrought on them all through this strange plant are captured expertly by a brilliant bit of double-casting; the girls themselves are solid enough, but are further supplemented by the boys that play their male versions, who perfectly mimic their respective physical tics or speech patterns, and even resemble them enough that you can immediately note who’s who. 

            There is no explanation for the plant- what it is, where it comes from, how its powers work, and why it suddenly starts to die halfway into the film- which will annoy some, but since this is a character-driven piece about the struggles of adolescence in general and one person’s crisis of identity specifically, worrying about this is missing the woods for the trees.  What I did have a problem with was a few moments in the third act where a few of the people start to act in ways entirely out of character, seemingly without motivation to do so, but thankfully they don’t derail what is otherwise a very powerful ending

            Witnessing Kim’s journey of personal discovery is agonizing, painful, and wonderful all at once, capturing so many of the moments of intense emotion growing up brings that can’t be put into words.  They can only be seen, or heard, or borne out in quick looks and small gestures, and it’s a mastery of the smallness of some of the defining moments of our growing years that make Girls Lost a special bit of filmmaking.  Highly recommended, especially for those who’ve struggled or still struggle with their own gender identities. 

-Noah Franc