Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Strange Days

We have been waiting for quite a while for Doctor Strange (2016), and it was worth it. I don't even mind the long origin story.

It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange, brilliant neurosurgeon and all-around asshole. He shares some banter with his ex-girlfriend, Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler from the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlocks), who works at the same hospital, but definitely doesn't want him back in her life. Things look good for Dr. S., until a moment of distracted driving leaves him with hands destroyed, permanent nerve damage. He is no longer a surgeon.

Desperate to recover the use of his hands, he travels to Kathmandu to search for Kamar-Taj, the mystical society that might be able to heal him. Their guru, the Ancient One, turns out to be bald Tilda Swinton. I guess making him an old Asian with a Fu Manchu beard would have been too weird. Or maybe James Hong wouldn't take the part.

Now things start cooking. To show Strange what it's all about, Ancient One sends him on a psychedelic sleighride through the realms of mystery and it is a TRIP! This is the kind of thing this movie is for.

I won't bother describing the section of Strange getting training, working with Master Wong the librarian (Benedict Wong) and Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the villain and, basically, the main plot. I want to talk about the characterization. I've mentioned Swinton - I would have liked a venerable Ancient One, but she's always awesome, so no complaints. Wong, who was Strange's servant in the comics, has a nice role here as one of his teachers, played severely deadpan with a sly touch.

I'm not so sure about Cumberbatch - he plays Strange as a wisecracking American, in the vein of MCU's Tony Stark. The comics' version was kind of a stick, who said things like, "By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! What evil threatens the Ancient One?" I think Cumberbatch could have played that (keeping his English accent) - but would anyone want to watch? Never mind, he's great as this version of Strange.

But this movie, for me, is really about the magic. The approach is interesting - they use Steve Ditko's hand halos from the original strips, interpreting them as golden sigils the glow around the magic user's hands. They also kind of use his style for the dark dimensions, but I don't think it plays so well. They do use his design for the classic window in his Greenwich Village sanctum. In fact, they expand the mythos of this design a bit.

My favorite part, though, is the magical/special effect that they use the most: A kind of stone-fu, where masonry and architecture bends to the will of the spellcaster. This takes the bent city from Inception to a whole new level as buildings twist and bend, and marble floors expand when you try to run across them. But they don't just stretch, they get more complicated. The patterns on the floor get more complicated, the walls sprout mullions and spandrels and brackets (if those are things) as they stretch. It's very fractal - in fact, at one point, Strange's fingers grow hands, and the finger on those hands grow smaller hands, and so on. Very trippy, and yet, mathematically rigorous.

In conclusion, I'm kind of bummed that Clea, Dr. Strange's magician's assistant from another dimension, in a satin leotard and fishnets, is not in the movie. Maybe a sequel?

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