Doctor Strange (2016)

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At last. A superhero film I can get behind even if Robert Downey Jr isn’t in it. There is actual dialogue – as opposed to a (c)rap soundtrack substitute for the Asian market. There is humour, much of it deriving from the ubiquitous character’s name. There is – shock – even a vaguely comprehensible story and a sense of its own ridiculousness. And also – and this is crucial – it’s under two hours.(Knowing when to leave is a biggie in my book.) This episode from the Marvel multiverse is about gifted arrogant neurosurgeon  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who loses the use of his hands in a car crash. His career is over. When conventional medical procedures don’t help he resorts to a spiritual odyssey in Nepal (Tibet won’t work for the sensitive Chinese, sadly) where he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in kung fu monk mode) and learns to subsume his ego to permit him access to mystic powers. Right there you have ingredients mashed up from James Bond, The Lost Horizon and Doctor Kildare. Cumberbatch is fantastic even when his own clothes are hitting him. (And you’ve got to admit that a man with that watch collection has oodles of style – particularly when he chooses to wear Jaeger-LeCoultre! Even the product placement is stylish.) Except you also have the crazed Master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, still seeking a sibilant replacement app) who wants to use dark powers to end the world and engage on some seriously impressive building-bending and folding in Greenwich Village and Hong Kong, the likes of which we haven’t seen since architectural origami exercise Inception. The effects are so good you’re left wondering why they couldn’t do something about that unsightly mole on Dr Christine Palmer’s face – Rachel McAdams is otherwise funny in a role that requires some very good real world reactions. Strange’s mission becomes that of intermediary between the world as we know it and the forces beyond. His self-discovery has global implications and reconciling what the Ancient One is really made of is central to what he becomes. It’s not just time that’s relative here – mor(t)ality too. Sidekick librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) enjoys a very humorous relationship with the new mandala master in his cloak of levitation. Steve Ditko’s comic book hero gets a fast and furious makeover from writer/director Scott Derrickson with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. Physician heal thyself ! And then some. Pretty great. With a neat cameo from Stan Lee himself reading The Doors of Perception to drop an implicit joke about hippies and drugs… Ho ho ho! Make sure you sit out half the credits for a preview of coming attractions …

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Suicide Squad (2016)

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I’m the first to admit I’m not the target audience for this episode in what is the DC Extended Universe … extended to a third episode. A bunch of irredeemable villains are assembled by a secret government task force led by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis)  to take on the  Enchantress (Cara Delevingne doing a Zoolander) who possesses archaeologist Dr June Moone with whom Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) has fallen in love… and there are so many of them, so many interracial, interspecies, horrible villains. At least with The Dirty Dozen you know what you’re in for:  twelve. And using that construction, recruiting, training (a trial run) and then conflict, you have your brain sucked out through your eye sockets and you remember you have a grocery list to write. If you can stand to sit it out you’ll think Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn the former psychiatrist is the best thing in it.  Jared Leto is doing the Joker and it’s more like a cameo and in a new context so you won’t really remember Heath Ledger (different class). Will Smith is back in a moneymaker as Deadshot with the cute daughter to guilt trip him. There are  … loads of them, and there’s a sequel to come, apparently, with the same writer/director, David Ayer. I wouldn’t have thought this was written so much as smeared.

Birdman (2014)

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How rare is it that a Best Picture Academy Award winner can actually be watched more than once? I give you Crash, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave, to name an intolerable few. Would you willingly sit through one of those again?!  This audacious, formal take on the unadulterated insecure narcissistic exhibitionistic actor (is there any other kind…) Riggan Thomson is an exception. His attempt to stage a Raymond Carver play on Broadway to try to recalibrate his career and be more than ‘one of those people awarding each other for cartoons and pornography’ (as hatchet woman theatre critic Lindsay Duncan snarls) is beset with difficulty. He tries to escape his populist reputation as the titular superhero but the grand irony is of course that cinema offers a far more fertile illusion than does the stage of realism trading as fantasy and to paraphrase R. Kelly, you will believe you can fly. Keaton is wonderful in a screenplay that trades on his definitive performance as Batman way back when, and it is a work that is replete with sharp references and allusions, written by director Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. This is a far greater film about heroism than those streamlined cookie cutter comic strip types Hollywood is now throwing up at us every time May rolls around:  this is a real flight of fancy, proceeding from earthbound and complex emotions and reality to actuated existence, expressed by a roving camera (that of Emmanuel Lubezki) that must have been a nightmare to act around by a game ensemble. Yes, this appealed to the Oscar voters’ vanity, but they got it right. And how fantastic was it to see Keaton mouth the words, ‘F’in A!’ at this years Oscars when his latest movie, Spotlight, also won the top award?! Hell yeah!

Batman (1989)

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‘Ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?’ Batman asks the Joker at an inopportune moment. Ah, the 80s! Big and brash and everything here is literally as dark as the inside of the Batcave itself. This is where the reinvention commenced under the direction of Tim Burton (and the closest I got to the production was bumping into producer Jon Peters in Covent Garden one fine day in London where it was being shot … oh well.) With a screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, DC were dragged into the post-modern age. Hamm said at the time that an origins story would destroy the mystique: we agree! The WGA strike prevented him from doing rewrites which were done by others and he then criticised but was powerless to change. Michael Keaton is the winged one (his casting caused a furore:  sound familiar?!), Nicholson is his tricksy antithetical nemesis, and Gotham’s journalist Vicki Vale is built up from the beauteous curves and pretty screams of stunning Kim Basinger. ‘I love purple’, she purrs while sliding down the Joker … No wonder Prince wrote Scandalous for her:  his songs adorn the marvellous score by Danny Elfman and it’s one of the sexiest soundtracks I own (is it any wonder.) Simply amazing sets by Anton Furst and equally impressive cinematography by Roger Pratt. Big wow.

Deadpool (2016)

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Call me old fashioned but even postmodernism has its limits. This is ultra-violent within the first 5 minutes, thrives on self-awareness, has a full rewind to bring us up to date at minute 60 and then has the customary 25-minute action denouement. So far so tiring. I prefer my self-referential movies to be sweeter. Like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This was Ryan Reynolds’ passion project for a long time and he has taken many the left turn since. Somehow we are supposed to find his dubious charms endearing – which comes up in the script, in the endless attempts to break the fourth wall. However Ed Skrein is really impressive as Ajax, the Brit Villain.

Ant-Man (2015)

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This had a legendarily problematic development and in some respects it represents what people generally call the superhero genre’s diminishing returns. And that’s not merely a response to the size of the hero – a soldier the size of an insect, as it were. Luckily the man socking it to The Man is played by Paul Rudd, a genial persona in cinema since Clueless. Plus, this isn’t about fathers and sons, for a change, at least not really. No, it’s more about fathers and daughters, ie Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly with a plot set up for the next volume. It might not raise the existential issues of The Incredible Shrinking Man but there are good sequences about scale, particularly towards the conclusion. Not awful, as it happens.