By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER: Review of Doctor StrangeThe special, visual effects in Doctor Strange make it one of the movies that pitch forward your sense of what modern, big-screen showmanship can be – films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, Jurassic Park, Titanic, The Matrix and Avatar, also the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series. But this Marvel Comics fantasy’s appeal is not, at its core, tech-sourced. It stars a real star.
Anyone who saw Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet (the 2015 staging was also screened in theaters), or The Fifth Estate or his TV Sherlock Holmes, knows that here is a unique packet of talented charisma. With the oddest stellar features since Boris Karloff, the tall, long-faced Brit is adored by swarms of “Cumberbitches.” Now they will be joined by salivating squads of Cumberwitches, as he flaunts a buff physique and discards his CumberBond accent for American zingers that still drip his hauteur. Armed with the very special effect of himself, Cumberbatch centers a film that might otherwise fly off on giddy jolts like a cosmic pinball.
Dr. Stephen Strange is the perfect pompous surgeon, with “magical’ hands. But a car crash leaves his doctor digits as wrecked as the pianist’s in The Hands of Orlac. Shattered, but with a robust, phallic ego to propel recovery, Strange leaves behind his yummy squeeze, medical colleague Christine (Rachel McAdams). He heads, of course, to the Fabled East. And finds, of course, the Ancient One.
That would be, of course, Tilda Swinton, whose DNA prepped this role since before birth. Head shaven to a glowing orb, Swinton is less an actor acting that an aura beaming. As she dispenses her riffs of silky-voiced wisdom, Swinton flies higher than Ken Kesey shagging Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.
Inevitably there is much gassy, astral rhetoric about time, power, fate and death. The logic is pure Marvel, pure Comic-Con: mystical arts mean magical arts, which really mean martial arts. By now, we all know that the future is mainly about cool mayhem. Assisted by a humorless but funny librarian (Benedict Wong) and hunky-pensive guardian Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange combats the insane rebel warrior Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelson, who telegraphs his first name in every mad gesture).
For all I know, Strange is the spawn of Dr. Strangelove and Jayne Mansfield, born in a mine shaft after Kubrick’s atomic wipe-out in 1964. We’re so swept up in his giddy struggle, as New York folds and streams in glassy, sliding visions of gonzo morphitecture, why bother about mere story sense?
It is an absorbing, lively spectacle, and a profitable peg on which His Cumberness can hang his rising star. Director Scott Derrickson and his ace team, uplifting elements pulped in 1978 by a Dr. Strange TV movie, support their fine cast by including smart bits and even dry wit. Look closely during one of the Big Apple’s immense origami convulsions. There sits a commuter, chortling. He is reading that prescient vision of psychedelics, Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception.
SALAD (A List)The dozen Best British Male Film Stars (and their best star films), in order of arrival: Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Leslie Howard (Pygmalion), Laurence Olivier (Richard III), Roger Livesey (The Life and Death of Col. Blimp), James Mason (Odd Man Out), Stewart Granger (King Solomon’s Mines), Alec Guinness (The Horse’s Mouth), Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came In From the Cold), Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove), Albert Finney (Shoot the Moon), Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) and Michael Caine (Educating Rita). Note: Charles Chaplin and Cary Grant were, essentially, American stars.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)Citizen Welles crowned the first great era of sound films (Citizen Kane, 1941). As a kid he had seen it beginning: “I went with my father to the world premiere of Warner’s first Vitaphone sound picture, which was Don Juan starring John Barrymore. It was really a silent with a synchronized sound track full of corny mood music, horse hooves, and clashing swords. But it was preceded by a few short items of authentic talkies – Burns and Allen, George Jessel telephoning his mother, and Giovanni Martinelli ripping hell out of Pagliacci. My father lasted about half an hour and then went up the aisle, dragging me with him. ‘This,’ he said, ‘ruins the movies forever.” (From This Is Orson Welles, by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)Quentin Tarantino is the definition of modern fan-boy cultism and “garnished by academic ivy: panels, monographs, essays, a ricochet beautifully caught in Michael Chabon’s novel Telegraph Hill, where video savant Peter van Eder finds in the 1953 musical The Band Wagon ‘a strong female character of the kind that has come to be foregrounded in Tarantino’s work’ and also a prophecy of Kill Bill. Such encrustations hardly make Tarantino an intellectual, but he is quite definitely a writer. ‘When I write my scripts,’ he told Charles McGrath, ‘it’s not really about the movie per se, it is about the page.” (From the Pam Grier/Jackie Brown chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available via Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
James Dean first reveals his movie power in East of Eden (Warner Bros., 1955; director Elia Kazan, cinematographer Ted McCord).
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