In the week since the elections I sought escape in my film choices. Nothing too heavy, I told myself, nothing too sad or too silly.
I think there is a 15-year-old teenage boy persona in my personality profile because my first choice for getting away from my head was to see films based on comic books. So, to “Dr. Strange” I went.
I happen to love movies with Marvel Comics heroes/heroines, who are sexier, funnier and more screwed up than those old-fashioned DC Comics types. I’m happy to report that “Dr. Strange” is right up there with the best of the lot, especially as he’s played in this origin story by Benedict Cumberbatch speaking American English instead of channeling Sherlock Holmes or Alan Turing. He’s very, very good as a brilliant, cold, egocentric brain surgeon who loses the use of his hands — the horror! — but (sort of) finds his humanity and superpowers through Eastern philosophy (the ever-so-versatile Tilda Swinton as an androgynous Yoda figure) and martial arts training.
The special effects are dazzling and I didn’t even see it in 3-D. They shimmer, they twirl, they hypnotize. And the script is witty and sophisticated, the directing first-rate and the supporting cast, especially Mads Mikkelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong, first-rate.
Be sure to stay through to the very end of the credits: Amusing hints of future storylines pop up here and there.
More escape. How about “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?” Perfect, right? J. K. Rowling pedigree. The world of witches and wizards that Harry Potter inhabited. Eddie Redmayne starring. What more could I want?
Sadly, a lot more. I mean, a lot. My daughter and I lasted an hour and then left, and I hate to walk out on movies. But in that hour, I smiled not once, chuckled not at all, and nary a gasp was heard from me or anyone else in the theater. The film wants so badly to be fun and silly, but I’m sorry to say it’s an old-fashioned dud. Perhaps very young children would enjoy the odd creatures created by the special effects folks and the constant music that guides us to react certain ways, just in case we weren’t reacting in those ways … and we were not. This is formulaic, commercialized whimsy, done with a heavy hand, so it plummets to the ground with a thud.
“Arrival” was next on my list. I don’t read reviews by others because I don’t want to know anyone’s opinion beforehand, but I knew the basic theme: A sci-fi picture starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, about aliens from another planet and the one linguist in the world who can possibly communicate with these creatures before the world-wide war machine goes into high gear. Perfect escape material.
Beware assumptions. Don’t get me wrong, “Arrival” is exactly as stated, but so very much more. The entire story plays with the concept of time and we’re not really sure if we’re present, past or future. It’s a mystery; also a low-key, character-driven love story; also a treatise on choices we make, roads that we should or should not have traveled, and how sheer determination can accomplish amazing results.
So, “Arrival” is not classic flight-from-reality faire but it sure got me out of the doldrums. The excellent cast, apart from the gifted work of Adams and Renner, includes another honest, intense performance from Forest Whitaker and two fine child actors, Jadyn Malone and Julia Scarlett Dan. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve “Sicario” helms a fine script by Eric Heisserer (from a story by Ted Chiang) with confidence and fluid pacing.
Go. You’ll be glad you did.