Doctor Strange (12A)

THE multiplex dominating Marvel formula gets a neat and visually dazzling new flavour with this distinctly mystical big-screen introduction to one of their, well, strangest heroes.

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon who lives a well-off and rewarded life in New York City. This privileged existence and livelihood is shattered when he’s involved in a horrendous car crash which renders his hands effectively useless for continuing his surgical work.

Looking for answers of how to heal his injured limbs, he heads off to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he meets the mystical Ancient One (a bald-headed, scenery-chewing Tilda Swinton) who reveals to him that this world is only part of an infinite multiverse. Our would-be hero is a man of science and stubborn reason forced to embrace a world of faith and spiritual magic.

He is then brought into the fold and taught the ways of mysticism – in part by the enigmatic Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – that will allow him to create magical weapons and interdimensional portals in preparation for a potentially world-ending attack perpetrated by Kaecilius, a treacherous and powerful former student (played by the charismatic though here underused Mads Mikkelsen).

More than any other Marvel outing to date, this is a visual movie in the purest sense of the word. Director Scott Derrickson – most known for horror films like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose – has created a wonderfully trippy world that, using some truly spectacular visual effects, gleefully plays around with time and space in a way that even the Thor movies aren’t afforded.

It’s a thrilling concoction of expectations and subversions thereof; just when you think it’s settled into a groove of its admittedly quite standard hero arising plot, it throws another curveball of a mind-bending action sequence to throw you off guard. Characters using their surroundings to leap around while cities fold in on themselves bring to mind Christopher Nolan’s Inception but it’s a far loopier, more eccentric view of distorted reality – or rather anti-reality – in action.

Even in its obligatory big final showdown, there’s a sense of uniqueness with a sequence that almost feels like a statement of defiance against those fed up with the traditional cityscape destruction that has plagued blockbuster cinema as of late.

Not content with introducing fantastical objects to the real world, we’re often catapulted head first into another resplendent, logic-defying one initially via a sequence that of all things brings to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s an exciting prospect for the MCU going forward, joining the ragtag Guardians of the Galaxy in showing that it doesn’t have to be just about The Avengers saving an earthly city from apocalyptic destruction.

It’s also a film that’s tremendously light on its feet, peppering its preternatural narrative with nimble and witty dialogue that makes sure the film never takes itself too seriously. Cumberbatch throws himself into the lead role with gusto, weirdly convincing and comfortably making us like and care for him in spite of the character’s inherent hubris.

This playful, inventive entry into the indefinite big-screen Marvel adventure is an astonishing feast for the eyes that wears the absurd with a badge of honour and thrusts its audience unashamedly into a weird kaleidoscopic world that provides a welcome detour from the norm. 4/5

This review was previously published in The National.

starfish-movie-review

Starfish (15)

SOMETIMES real life can offer up more harrowing and shocking heartbreak than any fiction could. And that’s most certainly the case with this bold and heartfelt drama from second time writer-director Bill Clark (the little known The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey).

It tells the traumatic true story of Tom Ray (Tom Riley), a talented writer living a pleasant life with his self-employed and heavily pregnant wife Nicola (Joanne Froggatt) and little girl Grace (newcomer Ellie Copping).

But their perfectly normal and happy life is shattered into pieces when one night Tom suddenly comes down with what he first thinks is a bad case of food poisoning and is rushed to hospital with crippling stomach pains. But it soon transpires he actually has an extremely dangerous case of sepsis that results in widespread infection and multiple organ failure, leading to his hands, legs and face being partially amputated.

After a long stint in hospital, Tom returns home but he and his family struggle to cope with the practicalities, emotional turmoil and financial hardship of his new-found situation.

Clark offers up a restrained, compassionate drama but also one that doesn’t shy away from the toughness of the horrendous situation in which Tom unexpectedly finds himself. There are scenes that are truly hard to watch, particularly when we first see the reality of how Tom now looks; the Millennium FX prosthetics employed to visualise the amputated lips and swollen face is nothing short of extraordinary.

Despite its ultimate glass-half-full outlook, the director is not interested in sugar coating the suffering, both of Tom himself and how it affects those around him. One particularly devastating moment sees Nicola, powerfully played by Froggatt, breaking down in tears and confessing that her husband isn’t the only one going through hell.

There are occasions when it lapses into overstatement, not least in its unnecessary use of stylised flashbacks to emphasise both the couple’s previously rosy marriage and how Tom’s father abandoned him as a child. But it all comes from an honest place and the performances really sell the drama.

It’s first and foremost a story about a family, offering a relatable means for us to cling onto the story and feel invested when one of the most horrendous, unthinkable ordeals is thrown at them. What could have been a mawkish and exploitative exercise is handled with sincerity, tact and above all a deep sense of empathy. 4/5

This review was previously published in The National.

train-to-busan-review

Train to Busan (15)

It’s not hard to see why this ferocious zombie flick has broken records in its native South Korea; it provides top notch survival horror thrills in a setting to which we can all relate while also offering a surprising amount of dramatic weight to boot.

The premise is deceptively simple: the passengers on a packed train headed from Seoul to Busan suddenly discover that a fast-spreading virus has been mysteriously unleashed upon the population, turning the infected into raging zombies. There are no surprises for guessing that the train doesn’t stay zombie free for very long.

We focus on just a handful of the passengers – particularly businessman father Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) and his young daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) – as they try to survive and navigate their way from one end of the train to a makeshift safe zone at the other until it arrives at its destination.

It’s hard for zombie films to stand out from the shuffling crowd. The Girl With All the Gifts did it recently and Train To Busan does likewise. This is mainly down to just how full on the zombified action sequences are, never messing around with how dangerous the virus is.

Contorting their bodies, violently chomping their teeth and, unlike traditional portrayals of the undead, quick to move – crucially these zombies are genuinely scary.

Save for a few scenes, most of the film is confined to the train. Aside from an ever-increasing sense of claustrophobic fear and terror, it finds inventive ways of using the restricted setting as the characters figure out how they are going to travel practically through the various compartments. You’ll never look at overhead storage in the same way again.

Hitherto animation-focused director Sang-ho Yeon (The King of Pigs, The Fake) delivers a confident, superbly orchestrated barrage of horror-inflected panic that has a literal and thematic forward momentum and remains unpredictable in spite of its familiar genre expectations.

Most importantly it makes us care about these characters, however much they may initially fit into archetypes, so that we’re right alongside them fearing for their lives and clinging to survival. 4/5

This review was previously published in The National.