Sunday, January 29, 2017
"DOCTOR STRANGE" (2016) Review
Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) scored its first big box office hit of 2016 with the release of "CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR". Six months later, the organization and producer Kevin Fiege scored another hit with its first adaptation of the Marvel Comics character, Doctor Strange.
Directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the starring role, "DOCTOR STRANGE" told unveiled the origin story of a successful New York City neurosurgeon named Dr. Stephen Strange, whose career ends when he loses the use of both hands in a traumatic car accident. Despite emotional support from his former lover and colleague Dr. Christine Palmer, Stephen vainly pursues one experimental surgery after another in the hopes of mending his hands, so that he can regain his medical career. When all else fails, he learns about a paraplegic who was mysteriously able to walk again named Jonathan Pangborn. The latter directs Stephen to a community in Tibet called Kamar-Taj.
Upon reaching the Tibetan city, Stephen meets a sorcerer named Karl Mordo. The latter recommends Strange as a potential student to his former mentor, a sorceress named The Ancient One. The latter displays her abilities with the mystic arts to Stephen, revealing the astral plane and other dimensions such as the Mirror Dimension. An amazed Strange begs her to teach him her abilities. The Ancient One reluctantly agrees, despite her wariness over his arrogance, which reminds her of a former student named Kaecilius. The latter and his new group of zealots had recently broke into Kamar-Taj secret compound, beheaded the librarian and stolen a secret ritual from a book that belonged to the Ancient One. With this stolen ritual, Kaecilius hopes to learn the means to acquire the power of eternal life. And it is up to The Ancient One, Mordo, the new librarian Wong and Stephen to stop him.
Superficially, "DOCTOR STRANGE" proved to be a different kettle of fish for Marvel. One, due to the abilities of the main protagonist and other supporting characters, this movie marked the MCU's first foray into magic. Well . . . not really. The two previous "THOR" more or less stated that at least two of its characters practiced magic. But the subject of magic was never fully explored until "DOCTOR STRANGE". Also, the movie marked the first time in which the main character practiced magic. Second, the method in which Stephen defeated the main antagonist's goals did not rely upon violence of any kind. Our magical hero basically resorted to magic and cunning to win the day. To be honest, I cannot recall any other Marvel hero or heroine who did not resort to brute force to defeat any of the main villains in the past thirteen films. And although the MCU movie had its share of unusual visual effects - especially 2015's "ANT-MAN", those for "DOCTOR STRANGE" has to be the most visually stunning effects I have ever seen in any Marvel film so far.
As for the narrative itself . . . well, it is not bad. Aside from the unorthodox manner in which Stephen defeated the villain(s), "DOCTOR STRANGE" seemed to be your typical, paint-by-the-numbers superhero origin story. And I noticed that the film borrowed a good deal from other movies. Considering Stephen's arrogant and witty personality, the movie bears a strong resemblance to the 2008 film, "IRON MAN". In fact, like Tony Stark, Stephen's arrogance remains intact by the last reel. Also, some of the visual effects reminded me of those found in Christopher Nolan's 2010 movie, "INCEPTION". And one of the villains that Stephen has to defeat in the end, Dormammu, reminded me of the villain called Parallax from the 2011 D.C. Comics film, "THE GREEN LANTERN". Perhaps the originality found in "DOCTOR STRANGE" is limited to the MCU movies.
Although the topic of magic allowed the special effects team to provide moviegoers with some astounding visuals, I must admit that I found the movie's portryal of magic to be a little . . . well, limited. Most of the magic presented in "DOCTOR STRANGE" seemed to consist of jumping through portals - either from one spot on the Earth to the next or to another dimension. If the movie's magic practitioners were not jumping through portals, they were utilzing magical objects like the red Mystical Cloak of Levitation from the New York City sanctum that attached itself to Stephen; and the Eye of Agamotto, a relic containing an Infinity Stone that can manipulate time - which Stephen had used against Dormammu in the final action scene. Only one spell had appeared in the movie - the one that Kaecilius used to summon Dormammu.
The movie's narrative suffered from one major aspect - characterization. One, the story lacked a strong leading lady. I personally have nothing against Rachel McAdams as an actress. But it seemed obvious that director/screenwriter Scott Derrickson and his fellow writers, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill did not know what to do with the Christine Palmer character. She was there to simply there to comfort Stephen following his accident and tend to his wounds, later in the film. At least McAdams had more lines than fellow cast member, Michael Stuhlbarg. The latter portrayed fellow surgeon, Nicodemus West, who seemed to exist to receive caustic criticism and needling from Stephen. Otherwise . . . what on earth was he there for? I realize that Marvel has a history of wasting some of its supporting character, but . . . good grief! And then we have poor Mads Mikkelsen, who had the bad luck to be cast as one of the most badly written villains in the MCU franchise. The Danish actor portrayed The Ancient One's former student, Kaecilius, who resented the Ancient One's method for maintaining a long life and long to do the same . . . even if it meant threatening the world by summoning Dormammu, the inter-dimensional being responsible for his former mentor's long life. That is basically Kaecilius' goal - to extend his life. That is what his attacks on the Ancient One's sanctums in different parts of the world were about. Quite frankly, I was not impressed and believe that Mikkelsen was wasted in the role. Two actors and an actress wasted in one film. I find this disturbing.
And then . . . we have Tilda Swinton in the role of "The Ancient One". In the Marvel comics, the Ancient One was a Tibetan man. In the name of "diversity", Marvel decided to re-write the character as a Celtic woman . . . and still have her located in Tibet. Hmmmmm. Mind you, Swinton gave a first-rate performance as the mysterious and somewhat ambiguous spiritual and magical leader. But . . . "whitewashing!". Marvel committed a major act of whitewashing. It is not the first time. But this was the most obvious example, considering the arguments that Derrickson and his two co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill used to excuse their changes. They had claimed that they wanted to avoid the stereotypical portrayal of Asians - namely the "Dr. Fu Manchu", "Dragon Lady" or the "young Asian woman sex fetish" types - by re-writing the Ancient One role as a non-Asian. So, they cast Swinton in the role. Frankly, I did not buy the arguments. The filmmakers did NOT have to re-write the role as a Westerner in order to avoid the Asian stereotypes. Any good actor or actress of Asian descent worth his or her salt could have done wonders with the role without resorting to stereotypes. A good example would be James Hong and Victor Wong's outstanding performances in the 1986 movie, "BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA". But if Marvel was that determined for Ms. Swinton to portray "The Ancient One", they could have re-located the character's main sanctum somewhere in Scotland, Ireland or Wales.
However, "DOCTOR STRANGE" did feature some interesting performances that I had enjoyed. Benedict Wong, who could have easily been cast in the role of "The Ancient One", managed to give a subtle and wry performance as the Kamar-Taj Sanctum's librarian, Wong, despite his minimal screen appearances. Benjamin Bratt gave a brief, but very memorable performance as Jonathan Pangborn, a paraplegic who learned how to heal himself under the tutelege of "The Ancient One". The movie's mid-credit sequence also featured an amusing appearance by Chris Hemsworth as Thor. I can only assume that this was Marvel's way of introducing the next film featuring the "God of Thunder" and the fact that Cumberbatch's Stephen Strange will be appearing in that film.
When "DOCTOR STRANGE" first hit the movie screens, many filmgoers had complained about his American accent. To be honest, Cumberbatch's accent seemed to lack any traces of his British ancestry. But I thought his accent had a trans-Atlantic vibe that I found rather bland. I could not regard his performance as the imaginative, yet arrogant Dr. Stephen Strange as bland. Like Robert Downey Jr. before him, Cumberbatch managed to create a character that was both infuriating and likable. But I thought that Chiwetel Ejiofor's portrayal of Karl Mordo, another sorcerer who was trained by the Ancient One, proved to be the most interesting one in the film. Ironically, there was no outcry over the Karl Mordo character being changed from an Eastern European to a person of African descent. Considering the difficulties that many non-white actors and actresses still face in acquiring work in the movie and television industries, I am not surprised. But the best thing about Ejiofor is how he transformed Karl from an amiable sorcerer with a deep faith in the practices taught to him by the Ancient One to a potentially dangerous fanatic who became embittered by the Ancient One and Stephen's willingness to use magic to defy nature. It is a pity that his performance has not garner much notice, except by the Evening Standard British Film Awards.
Overall, "DOCTOR STRANGE" is a solid entry for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that featured decent direction by Scott Derrickson and solid performances from a cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch. But aside from the movie's visual effects, I would not consider to be particularly mind-blowing. I also believe that the movie was hampered by some poor characterizations and a misguided casting choice for one particular character. Oh well, Marvel cannot always hit it out of the ballpark.
Saturday, January 28, 2017
Below is a list of my favorite Season One episodes from the CBS series, "SCARECROW AND MRS. KING". Created by Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming, the series starred Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner:
"SCARECROW AND MRS. KING": TOP FIVE FAVORITE SEASON ONE (1983-1984) Episodes
1. (1.03) "If Thoughts Could Kill" - After checking into a hospital for a routine checkup, government agent Lee Stetson (a.k.a. "Scarecrow") is slowly brainwashed into becoming an assassin by a former Agency physician.
2. (1.12) "Lost and Found" - While protecting a ESP expert who had defected from the Soviet Union, Lee is reunited with his former lover, the ESP expert's current wife.
3. (1.13) "I Am Not Now Nor Have I Ever Been a Spy" - A case of amnesia causes recently recruited spy and suburban divorcee Amanda King to forget vital information about terrorists.
4. (1.18) "Filming Raul" - Amanda and Lee tries to help a parking lot attendant for the Agency and film director wannabe, who had filmed an attempted kidnapping of an Agency courier. This makes him the target of enemy agents.
5. (1.01) "The First Time" - The series' pilot episode reveals how Amanda became an agent for the Agency, when she is given a package by Lee - an act that leads to their first adventure together.
Honorable Mention: (1.10) "The Long Christmas Eve" - Amanda and Lee's violent encounter with two KGB agents lead to a long night on Christmas Eve, inside an isolated cabin.
Monday, January 23, 2017
Below are images from "JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK", the 2016 adaptation of "Never Go Back", Lee Childs' 2013 novel. Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie stars Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher:
"JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK" (2016) Photo Gallery
Friday, January 20, 2017
"THE SPY WHO LOVED ME" (1977) Review
"THE SPY WHO LOVED ME" became EON Productions 10th entry in the Bond franchise in 1977. It also marked Sir Roger Moore’s third turn as British agent, James Bond, Cubby Broccoli’s as sole producer for the first time and Lewis Gilbert’s second time at bat as director of a Bond film. This is the movie that introduced the catchphrase, “Nobody does it better,” and according to many critics and fans, saved the Bond franchise back in the 1970s. Watching "THE SPY WHO LOVE ME", I can understand why many would harbor this belief.
Many critics and fans tend to credit or blame Roger Moore for helping to usher in the era of “fantasy” Bond – in other words a Bond movie that basically feels more like a fantasy/science-fiction action movie than a spy thriller. I do not really accept this view, since I believe that 1964’s "GOLDFINGER" was responsible for this change of style in the Bond franchise. In fact, Connery did two other movies that continued this very element in the movies. Roger Moore merely continued what Connery had begun in movies like "LIVE AND LET DIE" and "THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN". The latter, released in 1974, came dangerously close to ruining the Bond franchise – at least in the eyes of many fans and critics. And in a way, I do not blame them for this attitude. Frankly, I consider "THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN" to be one of the worst Bond films in the franchise and Moore’s worst movie. EON Productions had to wait two to three years to release its next movie, due to the breakup of the Cubby Broccoli/Harry Saltzman partnership. Following this, "THE SPY WHO LOVED ME" premiered in 1977 and became the most highly regarded Bond film in the 1970s and is considered by some to be Moore’s personal triumph. I do not know if I would consider "THE SPY WHO LOVED ME" to be Moore’s ultimate triumph. I believe that honor should go to the 1981 movie, "FOR YOUR EYES ONLY". However, I do consider it to be his third best film.
At first, the plot seemed reminiscent of the one for 1967’S "YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE". But instead of American and Soviet space capsules disappearing, British and Soviet submarines vanish. Bond, just recently from a mission in Austria that led to the death of a KGB agent, is assigned to track down the missing Royal Navy submarine via a tracking system that has popped up on the market in Cairo, Egypt. His search not only leads to Soviet agent Anya Amasova (who is investigating the disappearance of a Soviet sub), but to billionaire oceanographer, Karl Stromberg. But what makes "TSWLM" so interesting is that the Egyptian sequences have a strong exotic atmosphere that lends a touch of mystery to the story; and Bond’s relationship with Amasova turns out to be more than just a case of the British agent having a female on hand for sex in the finale.
Probably the biggest contribution to the success of "THE SPY WHO LOVED ME" seemed to be the movie’s lead, Roger Moore. Many fans believe that he finally grew into the role of 007 in this movie. After seeing him (as Bond) cold-bloodedly push one of Stromberg’s men of a Cairo roof and shoot Stromberg four times, I can see why. Personally, I felt that he had grown into the role at first bat in "LIVE AND LET DIE", but had regressed in an attempt to emulate Connery in "THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN". But I cannot deny that his performance in "THE SPY WHO LOVE ME" can not only be considered among his best, but among the best Bond performances in the entire franchise. And he was certainly helped by Barbara Bach’s presence. Although I would not describe the New York born model-turned-actress as a particularly talented actress verbally, but she could be quite versatile through facial expressions, whether expressing jealousy over Bond’s attention to Stromberg’s pilot/assassin, Naomi; amusement over some of Bond’s predicaments or developing attraction toward the handsome British agent. In fact, I can recall at least three scenes in which Moore and Bach interact with each other, beautifully:
1) Their deepening attraction for each other, expressed through smiles after M and Gogol order them to work together;
2) Their discussion regarding their status as enemies turned allies on the train to Sardina;
3) And the piece de résistance – Anya’s discovery that Bond had killed her former lover in Austria
Supporting cast members like Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewellyn ably serve the movie. Shane Rimmer, a Canadian actor who has been working in British films since the late 1950s, ably supports Moore as the somewhat sardonic commander of an American sub. Both Walter Gotell (as KGB General Gogol) and Richard Kiel (as assassin Jaws) make their debuts in the movie. Kiel personally came off as menacing in the movie, in compare to his return in "MOONRAKER". German matinee idol, Curt Jurgens became the latest Bond villain, playing a billionaire/oceanographer whose response to the world’s growing corruption and self-destruction is use stolen nuclear submarines to blow up Washington D.C. and Moscow. Actually, Stromberg became the first Bond villain with megalomaniac ambitions to rule the world. All those before him were simply interested in profit. Jurgens is his usual competent self and also had the pleasure of uttering a few bon mots. But . . . I do not exactly find megalomaniacal villains to be interesting.
Despite some of the fantasy/science-fiction elements of "THE SPY WHO LOVED ME" – the Lotus Esprit, Stromberg and his two lairs – the Liparus Tanker and his lair/lab Atlantis, the movie is an exciting adventure that features great direction by Lewis Gilbert, a first-class battle between Stromberg’s men and the American/British/Soviet naval personnel, exotic locales in Egypt, a self-assured performance by Roger Moore and great screen chemistry and drama between Moore and Barbara Bach. It is easy to see why it is considered the best Bond film from the 1970s.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Below is an article about the dish known as Stargazy Pie:
One of the more . . . uh, interesting dishes that has recently attracted my attention is the British dish known as Stargazy Pie. Created in the county of Cornwall, the dish is also known as Starrey Gazey Pie. The dish is a pie made from baked pilchards (sardines), eggs and potatoes and covered with a pastry crust. Other variations of fish have been used for the pie. However, the dish is unique for having fish heads (or tails) protruding through the crust, so that they appear to be gazing skyward. This allows the oils released during cooking to flow back into the pie.
The pie originated from the fishing village of Mousehole in Cornwall to celebrate the bravery of a local fisherman named Tom Bawcock in the 16th century. According to legend, a particularly stormy winter prevented Mousehole's fishing boats from leaving the harbor. The villagers were on the verge of facing starvation, as Christmas approached, for they depended upon the pilchards as a primary food source. Two days before Christmas, Bawcock had decided to face the stormy weather and head out into the water. Despite the difficult sea, Bawcock managed to catch enough pilchards and six other types of fish to feed the entire village. Some of the fish caught by Bawcock was baked into a pie, with the fish heads poking through to prove that there were fish inside. Ever since then, the Tom Bawcock's Eve festival has been held on 23 December in Mousehole. During the festival, villagers parade a huge Stargazy Pie during the evening with a procession of handmade lanterns, before eating the pie itself.
However, there have been rumors that the entire festival was a myth created by The Ship Inn's landlord in the 1950s. However, an author on Cornish language named Morton Nance had recorded the festival in 1927 for a magazine called Old Cornwall. He believed that the festival actually dated by to pre-Christian times, but expressed doubt that Tom Bawcock ever existed.
The original pie included sand eels, horse mackerel, pilchards, herring, dogfish and ling along with a seventh fish. In a traditional pie, the primary ingredient is the pilchard, although mackerel or herring was used as a substitute. Richard Stevenson, chef at The Ship Inn in Mousehole, suggests that any white fish can be used as the filling, with pilchards or herring just added for the presentation.
Below is a recipe for Stargazy Pie from the BBC Food website:
For the Mustard Sauce
9fl oz white chicken stock
4½oz crème fraîche
1oz English mustard
1 pinch salt
½ tsp mustard powder
squeeze lemon juice
For the pie
5oz piece streaky bacon
16 baby onions, peeled
9oz all-butter puff pastry, rolled to 3-4mm thick
1 free-range egg yolk, beaten
4-8 Cornish sardines, filleted, carcasses and heads reserved
1-2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
16 quails' eggs
For the mustard sauce, bring the stock to the boil in a non-reactive saucepan. Whisk in the crème fraîche, mustard, salt, mustard powder and lemon juice until well combined. Bring back to the simmer. Pass the sauce through a fine sieve into a jug and set aside.
For the pie, cook the bacon in boiling water for 20 minutes. Drain, then allow to cool slightly before chopping into lardons.
Bring another pan of water to the boil and cook the baby onions for 6-7 minutes, or until tender. Drain and refresh in cold water, then slice each onion in half. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400F/Gas 6.
Roll out the puff pastry until 3-4mm thick, then cut into 4 equal-sized squares. Using a small circular pastry cutter the size of a golf ball, cut out 2 holes in each pastry square.
Place each square on a baking tray and brush with the beaten egg yolk. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.
Bake the pastry squares in the oven for 18-20 minutes, or until golden-brown and crisp.
Remove from the oven and set aside.
Turn the grill on to high.
Place the sardine fillets, heads and tails on a solid grill tray, brush with the oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Grill for 2-3 minutes, or until golden-brown and just cooked through (the fish should be opaque all the way through and flake easily).
Heat a frying pan until medium hot, add the butter and bacon lardons and fry gently for 3-4 minutes, or until golden-brown. Add the onions and stir in enough sauce to coat all the ingredients in the pan. Reserve the remaining sauce and keep warm.
Bring a small pan of water to the boil, add the vinegar and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to a simmer.
Crack the quail's eggs into a small bowl of iced water, then pour off any excess (there should only be just enough water to cover the eggs). Swirl the simmering water with a wooden spoon to create a whirlpool effect, then gently pour the quails' eggs into the centre of the whirlpool. Poach for about 1-2 minutes, or until the egg whites have set and the yolk is still runny. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
To serve, divide the onion and bacon mixture between 4 serving plates. Arrange the sardine fillets on top, then place four poached quails' eggs around the fillet. Using a stick blender, blend the remaining sauce until frothy. Spoon the froth over the top of the sardines and eggs. Top each pile with the puff pastry squares, then place the sardine heads and tails through each hole in the pastry. Serve immediately.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Below are images from "DEATH ON THE NILE", the 2004 television adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1937 novel. The movie starred David Suchet as Hercule Poirot:
"DEATH ON THE NILE" (2004) Photo Gallery