Doctor Strange

Director: Scott Derrickson (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Released on a Tuesday to capitalise on UK schools half term break, this is a movie which doesn’t need the leg up to take the number one spot in the box office chart. The eye popping visuals and star power of Benedict Cumberbatch means this sorcery-based superhero adventure will have you spellbound.

In an astute piece of casting every bit as inspired as having Robert Downey Jnr play Iron Man, the star of TV’s Sherlock star plays Dr Stephen Strange, a brain surgeon turned Sorcerer Supreme.

In the latest introduction of a minor character in the Marvel canon to the wider cinema audience, the impressively psychedelic stylings of this latest product off the assembly line are sufficient to distract us from the functional plot.

Plus its East meets West magic and martial arts action means it possesses it a far stronger sense of identity than some of its franchise fellows. Yes, I’m looking at you Ant-Man (2015).

Despite a distracting American accent, Cumberbatch is alarmingly dashing in goatee beard, glowing medallion and a red cape. Similarly to the magic carpet in Disney’s animated Aladdin (1994), the cape has a mind of its own and is a major character in its own right. It says a lot for the actor’s comic ability he can play straight man to his costume.

The strong supporting cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong. Stan Lee has one his better cameos. McAdams is focused, bright and underused in the role of Strange’s love interest. By coincidence she appeared in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) as Holmes’ love interest Irene Adler.

A rampant egotist, the Doctor’s glamorous lifestyle and career are ruined when a car accident crushes his hands. In Nepal he is trained in the art of sorcery by Tilda Swinton’s mysterious Ancient One. Her sink or swim teaching methods include abandoning her pupils on Mount Everest to find their own way to safety.

Having fun in a role which is absolutely not stretch of his talent, former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen sports glam rock eye shadow and periodically teleports in to cause carnage. As renegade mystic Kaecilius, he’s attempting to destroy the world with the help of Dormammu, a powerful demon from the Dark Dimension.

The story skips between London, New York, Hong Kong and Nepal in a series of gravity defying, time twisting, space curling, mind bending action set pieces. For a lot of the time it’s like watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception on acid.

This is easily the most visually ambitious, funny and entertaining superhero movie of the year.



Black Mass

Director: Scott Cooper (2015)

After series of flops including Mortdecai (2015), Transcendence (2014) and The Lone Ranger (2013), Johnny Depp’s career is in desperate need of a hit.

Here he hides his leading man looks under extensive make up, false teeth and a receding wig.

Although he’s great as the ruthless American gangster ‘Whitey’ Bulger, it’s a clunking biopic that’s far less than the sum of it’s parts.

It’s fine looking with a nice contrast between the faded grandeur of the locations and unfortunate 1970’s fashions.

Boston is inherently photogenic and offers a variety of unfamiliar settings.

But strong performances from a great cast are undermined by an unfocused script and uninspired direction.

Whitey feeds information on his mafia rivals to childhood friend turned FBI agent in return for a blind eye to his gangster activities.

Joel Edgerton’s central character is sidelined in order to give more screen-time to Depp.

Neither are sympathetic, despite early attempts to portray Whitey as a loving family man.

Supporting characters such as Jesse Plemons’ are introduced, forgotten about and wheeled back in again.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s role is even more reduced as Whitey’s Senator brother.

There’s an interesting story to be told how the lives of these two brothers took very different directions.

But the film ignores this, preferring to indulge in macho posturing and bloody violence.

The setting, soundtrack, language and violence are very much the milieu of director Martin Scorsese.

However not only does Black Mass feel like Martin Scorsese lite, it feels like poor Martin Scorsese lite.

Black Mass calls to mind the maestro’s weak, albeit Oscar winning The Departed (2006).

What’s more interesting is it’s also Ben Affleck light. Black Mass suffers in comparison with the actor turned director’s Boston set crime thrillers Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010).

I say that as a fan of both Affleck’s films.

Depp may have to wait a while longer for his next success.

The mythical James Bond, 007


In the 23rd James Bond thriller,  Skyfall, director Sam Mendes sought to elevate super spy James Bond, from Hollywood action star to a timeless heroic symbol of England.

By employing poetry, imagery and story elements of Arthurian legend, Mendes stretches an umbilical cord through time to connect Britain’s most modern fictitious national hero, Bond, with its most ancient and legendary King, Arthur.

In Le Morte d’Arthur (pub. 1485), Thomas Malory codified the legend of King Arthur from disparate sources and established what we now consider to be the definitive legend.

King Arthur
Richard Harris as Arthur

Arthur is an orphan who wields a weapon only he can command and must fight a traitor, his step-brother Modred, to save his kingdom. Arthur is betrayed by a woman, mortally wounded in action and is hidden away from the world by the lady in the lake. There he will await until his return to once again rescue his land at the hour of his country’s greatest need.

In Skyfall these events and all occur, though not in this order, and are there to establish Bond’s mythical status.

007 goes sky falling

In the pre-title sequence we see Bond shot by fellow agent, Eve, before falling into a river and being pulled under water by a godlike female hand. Being brought low by a woman named Eve is obviously a very Christian idea, reminding us how closely Arthurian legend deliberately echoes the story of Jesus Christ, his betrayal, death and his resurrection.

Bond undergoes a symbolic Christian death at the hands of his followers, but remains in limbo waiting to be reborn. He only returns from the dead , when England is threatened by terrorists led by a former British agent.

De la croix
Grave matters

In Skyfall Bond/Arthur are tasked with defending Britain from Javier Bardem’s Silva/Mordred. All are orphans raised to be warriors.

And just as Arthur and Mordred were related, so we have lots of references to Judi Dench’s M as their metaphorical mother.

De la Croix is revealed to be the maiden name of Bond’s mother. De la Croix translates as ‘Of the cross’ and so ties in with the idea of resurrection. This feeds neatly into the conceit of Bond regenerating every time a new actor assumes the role. It’s also a nod to Ian Fleming’s socialite mother, Evelyn Beatrice St. Croix Rose.

Bond’s Merlin figure of course, is Ben Whishaw’s Q. He provides Bond with a pistol registered to his unique palm print so only he can use it. It’s an updated Excalibur, the sword in the stone.

Bond sails through a dragon’s mouth prior to sleeping with the mistress of his MI6 colleague-turned-enemy. Compare this to how Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon has Merlin invoke the Dragon’s breath to seduce lgrayne, the wife of his former ally, the Duke of CornwalI. John Boorman vividly illustrates this in his excellent telling of the Arthurian legend, in 1981’s Excalibur .

Dragon mouth
Enter the dragon

We hear how following the loss of his parents, the barely  teenage Bond spent three days in a tunnel before emerging an adult. An echo of the vigil an aspiring knight had to endure before being allowed to join the chivalric order.

Poet Laureate Alfred Tennyson wrote a cycle of narrative poems concerning King Arthur called Idylls of the King (pub. 1859). This is the significance of Judi Dench’s M quoting Tennyson, as Bond races to her rescue.

Ralph Fiennes as ‘M’

All we’re missing is a character called Mallory to appear and oops, that just happens to be the real name of Bond’ new boss, ‘M’.

I don’t believe a director as erudite as Mendes would incorporate these details by coincidence. It would be almost impossible to do so by accident.

These details in the subtext of the film echo in the subconsciousness of the viewer. They reinforce the idea of Bond as a saviour of the English.

The conflation of Bond and Arthur places 007 at the centre of British literary, cinematic and Christian cultural tradition, so elevating him from the contemporary to the mythical, and crowning Bond as the once and future king of English heroes, and Hollywood.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Director: Peter jackson (2013)

This second part of The Hobbit trilogy is a brilliant combination of solid gold action and spellbinding fun.

It looks glorious – from the magnificent and enormous mountain kingdom to the tiniest gold coin. The furnaces and forges are massive, built on a Herculean scale worthy of my native Teesside. The music is thunderously epic, scenery stunning and the action fantastic.

On top of all this there are dark and scary elements. Paranoia, corruption and madness are never far from the surface in the script.

There are big changes to Tolkien’s book in the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug, plus there is an entirely new character called Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).

She’s a kick-ass elven warrior who supplies some welcome female warmth among the bushy-browed band of brothers though her story arc may be an invention too far Jackson.

Underpinning this amazing adventure are the captivating characters of Gandalf the wizard, Bilbo the hobbit and dwarf chief Thorin, portrayed with charm and talent by Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage.

The horde of squabbling dwarves are played by the same actors as in the previous film and Orlando Bloom returns as the elvish prince Legolas.

Gandalf goes off to investigate the mysterious Necromancer, meanwhile Thorin continues to lead his dwarves on their quest to rightfully reclaim their Lonely Mountain kingdom from Smaug the dragon.

The superbly animated fire-breathing monster, who rests on a hill of gold, is voiced with chilling reptilian menace by Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch.

In one of 2013’s best action sequences the heroes shoot down a river in barrels while being chased by both elves and orcs.

Bilbo and the dozen dwarves are attacked by giant spiders, imprisoned by elves and captured by men yet the ferociously paced Hobbit is still packed with humour.

They use swords, arrows, knives and axes to fend off orcs, wolves and giant bears while lurking at the end of their quest, a ferocious fire-breathing dragon.

With much enthusiastic slaying, smiting and beheading, our heroes, ride, run and fight their way through streets, forest and caverns, from the diseased and dangerous Mirkwood forest to the ramshackle Laketown and into The Lonely Mountain itself where it ends in a flash – of gold and fire.

The Imitation Game

Director: Morten Tyldum (2014)

Get quizzical with Benedict Cumberbatch in this compelling wartime thriller about real-life code-breakers.

The star of TV’s Sherlock puts in an Oscar worthy performance as Alan Turing; cryptologist, mathematician and inventor of the world’s first computer.

It unlocked the Nazi‘s Enigma code machine and so helped win the second world war – but he was later prosecuted for being gay.

A cleverly constructed narrative switches between between his arrest in 1951, unhappy schooldays and successful war years.

In 1941 he is recruited by MI6 spook  Major General Menzies (a scene-stealing Mark Strong) and placed under the sceptical Commander Denniston (wonderfully caustic Charles Dance).

Although prodigiously brilliant, Turing’s lack of social graces annoys everyone but Joan, the only female team member played by a winning Keira Knightley.

In a laboratory in Bletchely Park they try to decipher German communications before the daily code is changed.

There are over 159 million million possible combinations and every seconds delay means more Allied deaths.

So starts to Turing build his computer, an astonishing room-sized contraption of wires, wheels and whirligigs.

He nicknames it Christopher after a schoolfriend, a perfect name for anything super-intelligent but he’s unable make it work quickly enough.

Denniston wants to close the laboratory down and the paranoid atmosphere is heightened by the possible presence of a spy.

Being a British affair, the terrifically moving moment of eureka happens in the pub.

Despite saving an estimated 14 million lives and shortening the war by two years, his work is classified top secret.

So no-one is aware of his work when he is later tried and punished for indecent behaviour.

This excellent film is an insufficient legacy to a genius and British hero – but it’s a damn fine place to start.