"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris



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Dr. Strange : A Review


My Rating : 2 out of 5 Stars

My Recommendation : Skip it in the theatre. See it on Cable or Netflix. If you are a superhero lover, you'll see the film anyway, so my recommendation is meaningless.

Dr. Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, is the story of a genius, hot shot neuro-surgeon who falls on hard times after an accident and searches the world for a way to heal himself. Through a fortuitous path, the good Doctor finds himself in Kathmandu studying the mystical arts and being thrown into the esoteric world of superheroes, magic and multi-dimensions. 

Dr. Strange is the fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is the one inhabited by Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Spider-man and The Avengers to name but a few. The film is directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson. It boasts an impressive cast of supporting actors including Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Stuhlberg.

I admittedly knew very little about the comic book character Dr. Strange before seeing the film. Marvel, and their parent company Disney, are well aware that Dr. Strange is a second level type of superhero. He isn't on par with his more famous compatriots like Spider-man, Hulk, Captain America or Iron Man. So the studio wisely uses this film to roll out not only a "new" property in their cinematic universe, but in doing so they also prepare the audience for multiple and changing versions of the cinematic universe they have already created. What I mean by that is Dr. Strange is not just a superhero, he is a mystical hero, who is part of a group that can cross over into other dimensions, mess with time, and generally warp all that we think we know for sure. It is a very savvy move for Marvel/Disney to roll Dr. Strange out now as it allows them to have a new money-making franchise and also gives them the flexibility to change and alter the current direction of Marvel films by giving themselves the ability to "change universes" through Dr. Strange's multi-dimensional time-line jumping. So they can make a film where Captain America is evil or the Hulk kills Spider-man, and then have Dr. Strange come along and either turn back time or jump to another universe in the multi-verse…pretty savvy.

Disney is on fire right now in terms of the moves they have made in recent years. In 2010 the studio bought Marvel comics and their cavalcade of superheroes, the only notable exception being the X-Men who are stuck over at the creative hell known as Fox. The purchasing price was $4 billion which, sadly, was just out of my price range. That is a lot of money for any studio to invest, but the move has already paid for itself with multiple successful franchise films and spinoffs in the time since the purchase. Disney has pumped out twelve Marvel based films in the last six years, with many more to come. These twelve films have made in excess of $9 billion. Add to that the shrewd move to purchase the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas for another $4 billion, which has already paid off handsomely as the first Star Wars film they made, The Force Awakens, made $2 billion worldwide last year. And that evil mastermind Mickey Mouse plans to release new Star Wars films every year for the next few years ensuring another huge payday for the studio. In other words, Disney earnings are going to be very healthy for the foreseeable future.

So why am I talking all this inside baseball about movie studios and franchises and box office? Well, Dr. Strange is both an example of why that strategy by the studio is good for business and simultaneously bad for movies. Dr. Strange is not a terrible movie comparatively speaking, not at all, but it also isn't a great one. But it could have been a hell of a lot better than it was in the hands of a more daring and confident director. But daring and confident directors are not going to get a chance to mess with the Mickey Mouse Marvel Money Machine. Instead the Marvel films are all going to be formulaic, rather predictable, self-consciously cutesy, and cinematically somewhat lacking, just like Dr. Strange

On the other hand, if a powerhouse like Disney didn't own the rights to Dr. Strange, and they hadn't been so successful with the other Marvel franchise films, this character would never see the light of day, and Dr. Strange is a truly great character worthy of a film. The great disappointment is that the film Dr. Strange never lives up to the compelling intrigue that its main character brings to the show.

Like many Marvel films, Dr. Strange is two-thirds of a good-enough movie, but loses its way in the final third of the film. And like most of the Marvel films, Dr. Strange lacks an exceptional villain that can compete with its main character. Yes, there are villains in the movie, one played by one of my favorite actors, Mads Mikkelson, but that character is never fully fleshed out or given much to do in a rather shallow script. The other villain is an enormous evil entity that is visually unremarkable in every way, thus undercutting the power he may possess for viewers.

The first two thirds of the film are pretty interesting because the character of Dr, Strange is a fascinating one, and also because Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor with an imperative charm to him. Cumberbatch has a weird magnetism to him that draws viewers in to his private world even as he keeps them an arms length away. Cumberbatch's work in Dr. Strange is all the more impressive because it is a star turn that requires great charisma and appeal to be able to pull off, and I didn't think he had the goods to be able to do it, but he does. 

The rest of the cast do fine enough work in underwritten and underwhelming roles. Chiwetel Ojiofor is a terrific actor but is terribly under used as Karl Mordo. Tilda Swinton does a good job as The Ancient One. Swinton is always an interesting actress and her solid work here is a tribute to her talent as it is much more complex and nuanced a performance than the script gives to her. The rest of the cast, Mikkelson as Kaecillius, Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer and Michael Stuhlberg as Nicodemus West all do the best they can with the very little they are given.

Visually the film has some interesting sequences where we get to see the multi-verse and things of that nature, but all in all it is a rather stale bit of filmmaking. There are sequences that are reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's film Inception, which do Dr. Strange no favors because Scott Derrickson is certainly no Christopher Nolan, not in any way.

All that said, I did enjoy the film even though in total it is pretty sub-par. I think the reason I enjoyed it was that the character is so interesting, and that Cumberbatch does such a good job bringing him to life. I think another reason I enjoyed it was that I had very low expectations and was glad to just sit and turn off my brain after all the hullaballoo about the election. I have been very critical of the Marvel films of the past as they struck me as just the worst sort of mindless noise meant to separate idiots from their money…idiots like me. I think what has happened to me is that having sat through so many Marvel films, my brain has been softened to mush and I am now more pliable to the wishes of the evil wizard Mouse pulling all the strings back at Disney headquarters. Whatever the reason, I "enjoyed" Dr. Strange on a certain level, and while I wouldn't watch the film again, I will go out and read some of the comic books to learn more about the character. So that in and of itself says something positive about the film.

In conclusion, if you love super hero movies, you will see this film no matter what I say. If you are lukewarm on super hero films, you can skip this one and maybe catch it on cable or Netflix for free and at your leisure. I found Dr. Strange to be a fascinating character in a rather tepid film. I think you will feel the same way, which is why I recommend you skip seeing it in the theatre, and go read some Dr. Strange comics instead.


Spotlight : A Review



Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy and written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, is the true story of a team of reporters from the Boston Globe's Spotlight team, who investigate and report on child sex abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston Diocese. The film stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery and Liev Schrieber.

Spotlight is one of the very best films of the year. It is a tense drama, exquisitely acted by a sterling cast, deftly directed and intricately edited. Spotlight is the type of film that seems like it could have been made during cinema's golden age in the 1970's. It feels like a distant cousin of that decades All the President's Men, another story of journalism and hard-driving reporters investigating a scandal deep at the heart of a thought to be untouchable power. Interestingly enough, in Spotlight, John Slattery plays Boston Globe journalist and editor Ben Bradlee Jr., the son of famed Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, one of the key players at the Post during their Watergate reporting, who was played by Jason Robards in All the President's Men.

Even though Spotlight is set in the late 1990's and early 2000's, it is really an insightful period piece about the last days of the relevancy of newspapers, and of the dying craft of investigative journalism. The film pays homage to the last generation of journalists who will have had the opportunity to work full-time doing investigative reporting for a newspaper. Corporatism and the internet have devastated the newspaper industry, and Spotlight shows us that industry's last gasp, and what we are missing now that it is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Spotlight is also about the scourge of institutional blindness and the insidiousness of silence in the face of that blindness. The willful institutional blindness of the church, the press, the courts and law enforcement, and of the people of the city of Boston is on full display in the film. At its heart, Spotlight is really an indictment of the city and the people of Boston. Boston is one of the most parochial places you could ever imagine. For a place filled with legendary institutions of higher learning, it is remarkably narrow-minded and short-sighted. As the film shows us, the suffocating claustrophobia, knee-jerk myopia and the vicious parochialism of Boston created a toxic brew of dysfunction, arrogance and deference in which predatory priests and the Church hierarchy thrived. Only an outsider could break the spell of Boston's willful blindness, and in Spotlight that role is played by Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, a Jewish editor from Miami who is new to the city and the Globe, and not beholden to the Church. Baron is the one who instigates the Spotlight team into investigating the church and pushes them to dig deeper and reach higher up the hierarchy in their work.

When the story of Spotlight ends, and the indictment of Boston is complete, a very long list of other cities and town scrolls across the screen. These cities and towns are places where other Catholic sex abuse scandals have been uncovered, and the viewer gets the dawning realization that Spotlight isn't an indictment against the city and people of Boston, it is an indictment against all of us, no matter where we live. We are all guilty of the same blindness and cowardice, to one degree or another, on display in Spotlight.

Director Tom McCarthy and his editors do a spectacular job deftly maneuvering the viewer through the morass of the allegations and the cover up at the heart of the film. He keeps a solid and steady dramatic pace, never letting the story lose steam or the viewer lose interest. McCarthy shows a great skill in pacing and tempo throughout the film. Spotlight is littered with detailed little gems which frame and shape each scene and propel the story through the entirety of the film. McCarthy is an actor himself, and his understanding of acting is on full display in Spotlight. He keeps the scenes tight and the actors loose. McCarthy directs the drama to be  vibrant, but never pushes the pace too hard that we lose the subtlety, specificity and humanity at the heart of each of the performances.

The acting on display in the film is exquisite across the board. Even the small, local hires, playing abuse victims and local residents, hit it out of the park. This is a top-notch, professionally acted film from top to bottom. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D'arcy James play the Spotlight reporters perfectly. They bring a tangible sense of purpose and vivd detail to their work that drives each scene and ultimately the narrative of the entire film.

It is great to see Michael Keaton follow up his great artistic success in last years Birdman, with his solid work in Spotlight. Keaton is pitch-perfect as Walter "Robby" Robertson, a native son of Boston and well-respected journalist. I hope Keaton continues to make these kinds of choices in the projects that he chooses as he is such an asset to any film where he can bring his skill and experience to bear.

McAdams does the best work of her career as reporter Sacha Pfieffer.  McAdams is as grounded and genuine as she has ever been on screen. She displays a humanity and a compelling internal life that is both steady and captivating.

Mark Ruffalo follows up his terrific work in last years otherwise disappointing Foxcatcher, with a dynamic performance as reporter Michael Rezendes. Ruffalo brings a magnetic power and a tangible wound to the role that is mesmerizing. Ruffalo has been on a roll lately with great work and Spotlight is some of his best.

Both Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci have smaller roles but they do spectacular work. Both men are actors of extraordinary craft and talent, and they both bring all of their skills to bear in Spotlight. Without Schrieber and Tucci's multi-dimensional portrayals, the film would have suffered greatly.

Spotlight is the type of superbly crafted film of which I wish Hollywood would make more. Spotlight, The Big Short, which is another great film from this year, and 12 Years a Slave from 2013, all had minuscule budgets around $20 million and all of them at least more than doubled their budgets in profits. Instead of spending $100 or $200 million to make a monstrosity like The Avengers or some action piece of crap, why not take that money and make five or ten Spotlights, or The BIg Shorts or 12 Years a Slave? Those three films combined cost $60 million to make and have grossed $363 million. With moderate budgets like that, there is less risk and higher reward, as opposed to a $200 million film, which will nearly double its budget on marketing and then need to make a billion dollars just to be considered a success. Spotlight shows that good and great films can be made relatively inexpensively using just the skill, craft and talent of the people involved. I wish for all of our sakes that Hollywood would learn that lesson, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they won't. Regardless of the state of the film industry, Spotlight is proof that there are still artists out there capable of making high quality, smart films. 

In conclusion, Spotlight is one of my favorite films of the year. It teaches us hard lessons about our own cultural blindness and the price that the most vulnerable among us pay for it. It also shows us a time not long ago, when the press could, on its better days, hold those in power accountable. Those days are long gone, and Spotlight reveals to us that our culture is lesser for the loss of true investigative journalism. Spotlight is well worth your time, money and effort to go see it in the theaters. I strongly encourage you to do so. 





(This section is written by my lifelong friend and our resident conspiracist, Prof. Rev. Dr. Steve Keithans a.k.a The Mayor of Westfield. The good Professor Reverend Doctor Keithans views may or may not be the same as my own, but regardless, I am happy to share them here with you now.)

The strangest thing…when speaking with my good brother Michael McCaffrey about the film Spotlight, one of the great elements that we both noticed about the film was how fantastically well paced it is. But to my eyes there was one small hiccup which stuck out to me like a sore thumb. Films have a visual style, rhythm and pace to them. Shots are consistently framed and lit in a certain style and held for a certain length creating an unconscious rhythm for the viewer of a film. Each shot informs the shot that follows it and is informed by the one that preceded it. Spotlight quickly establishes its visual rhythm and sticks with it through the entire film…except for one…single...shot.

The shot in question takes place at exactly 1 hour 23 minutes and 22 seconds of the film. The shot is of the Boston Globe parking lot as editor Mark Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives to the office. It is a wide shot, one which we have not seen yet, nor will we see it again. We have seen this same parking lot before but only in close ups and two shots of the actors in their cars. In this shot, from a high angle wide shot, we see Baron pull his car in to the parking lot. Looming over the parking lot, and dominating the shot, is a big "AOL Anywhere" billboard and the background is the skyline of Boston. Here is a screen capture of the shot.

It is an odd shot in the context of the visual style and rhythm of the film and it is jarring to the unconscious of the viewer because it breaks that rhythm. It is pretty striking that the one shot that is out of rhythm with the entire film is that of an AOL Anywhere billboard which happens to have a giant pyramid with an all seeing eye in it. What makes the shot all the more jarring is the context of where it shows up in the film. The scene directly following this shot shows Mark Baron entering the Boston Globe office, in the foreground a group of people are gathered around a television watching breaking news. The breaking news is the 9-11 attack. Baron stops in front of the television long enough to see a jumbo jet crash into the World Trade Center. 

When I first saw the film I felt uneasy with the parking lot shot, but didn't really give it much thought. The sensation was one of slight discomfort, something just seemed off, nothing more. It was more subconscious than anything and it barely registered in my conscious mind except to say…"hmmm…that feels…off".

Upon my second viewing of the film, I was more consciously jarred by the visual anomaly, and I wondered if this was just a very unsubtle case of AOL product placement.  

Then I thought, well, maybe the director is trying to symbolically say that newspapers in general, and the Boston Globe in particular, don't know what is coming at them, the black swan theory if you will…that they are blind to their own on-coming demise in the form of AOL (the internet), much like the U.S. was blind to the 9-11 attacks. 

Then I wondered if maybe this shot has a deeper meaning that the director was not even conscious of, or maybe he was…who knows, right? Maybe the all seeing eye highlighted in that shot is symbolic of one of the shadowy "secret societies" that are known to use child sex abuse rituals when they practice their dark art. Or maybe it is symbolic of the all seeing eye of "the powers that be" in the military-intelligence-surveillance industrial complex who were either complicit or entirely behind the 9-11 attacks in order to increase their power and control by creating a "new Pearl Harbor". Or maybe those two groups, the child sex abuse ritual people, and the military-intelligence-surveillience industrial complex people are cross pollinated and are actually one in the same and this shot shows us a brief glimpse of their vast power and control…the billboard does say "AOL Everywhere" after all.

Then I wondered if maybe this shot was a secret warning from an insider of one of these groups, alerting anyone with the eyes to see that this nefarious, shadowy group was behind both the sex abuse in the Catholic church, and 9-11 and most everything we see in the media (once again…"Everywhere"). And then I wondered if this shot was indicating that another 9-11 was coming, this time aimed at Boston.

And then I wondered why my head hurt so much, and then I realized that my tinfoil hat was on way too tight. Sadly, after I removed the tinfoil hat from my head, the aching still remained…and even more unsettlingly, so did the anomaly of that shot and the all seeing eye in the pyramid looming over the city of Boston, and glaring right at me…and seeing right through me…knowing and controlling…"EVERYTHING".