Tilda Swinton

Doctor Strange (2016, Scott Derrickson)

The only particularly bad thing in Doctor Strange is the music. Michael Giacchino strikes again with a bland “action fantasy” score. The score feels omnipresent; I’m not sure if it really is booming all throughout the film or if I was just constantly dreading its return.

Dread is something in short supply in Doctor Strange. The film opens with Mads Mikkelsen’s ponytailed bad guy doing some visually dynamic magic. The world becomes a moving M.C. Escher piece, with lots of tessellation. While visually dynamic, these magical reconfigurations of the world don’t affect regular people and don’t really change the fight scenes much. The reconfigurations happen aside from the principals’ actions. Most of that action is white people doing questionable kung fu fighting with magic assists.

Director Derrickson embraces the long shot and the extreme long shot to do his action. The camera’s never close enough to reveal whether Tilda Swinton really did all her kung fu fighting. She definitely did her melodrama scene though. It’s a special thing, a melodramatic scene in Strange, the film utterly avoids using them. Lead Benedict Cumberbatch’s character development is done without them. Sure, when he’s despondent over his injured hands after a car crash, there’s a little melodrama. But not once he starts his journey.

Cumberbatch gives up on conventional medicine–he was the only surgeon good enough to fix his hands–and heads to the Far East. He’s looking for a magical fix. He finds it with Swinton and company. Swinton’s the leader, a near immortal sorcerer with a shaved head. Chiwetel Ejiofor is her main lackey. He gets the job of training Cumberbatch when the movie takes time for a training scene. Until Cumberbatch gets the magic; after he gets the magic, he’s got all the magic. No one seems to notice he goes from novice to sorcerer supreme in three minutes.

They’re too busy trying to save the world. Jon Spaihts, Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill’s script is long on exposition, short on thoughtful plotting, even shorter on character development. Ejiofor gets it the worst. He’s in the movie more than anyone else in the supporting cast, but he never gets a character. Not until the third act and then it’s just a contrivance.

Rachel McAdams is in the movie less than Ejiofor, with a lousy part. The screenwriters seem to think Cumberbatch needs a romantic interest of some sort. She doesn’t have anything going on besides doting on Cumberbatch, whether she likes it or not.

Many of the performances improve over time. Swinton’s far better later on than at the beginning. Mikkelsen is bland at the open only to end up saving the middle portion of the film. He and Cumberbatch have some banter. The banter keeps things going given the CG spectacular isn’t ever spectacular when it needs to be. Cumberbatch, for instance, is only ever a passive party when not doing CG spectacular by himself.

Eventually Cumberbatch starts getting into ghost fights. Fighting when a ghost on the spirit plane. The ghost fights are simultaneously well-executed–something of a surprise as Derrickson and photographer Ben Davis don’t seem to care at all about the CG compositing being weak–and boring. The visual concept for the astral plane kung fu fights is good. The special effects realize it perfectly well. Derrickson just can’t direct fight scenes. So the scenes get old fast. Especially when they’re distracting from Mikkelsen.

Mikkselen’s essential for keeping it going in the second act. He and Cumberbatch’s banter has more character development for Cumberbatch than his entire mystical training.

Cumberbatch is entirely bland in the lead. He’s more believable opening portals to mystical dimensions and having showdowns with ancient intergalactic evil beings (who look a like the MCP from Tron, only without any enthusiasm in CG) than he is being the world’s best surgeon, who also knows more seventies music trivia than anyone else. His voice is flat and without affect; he’s trying not to lose his American accent. Unfortunately, it affects his performance.

It’s unlikely McAdams and Cumberbatch are going to have any emotionally effective scenes, but at least if Cumberbatch were concentrating on responding to her lines and not making sure he never sounds British… well, it might have helped. Both actors are completely professional opposite one another, but there’s zero chemistry. Wouldn’t really matter if there were any chemistry, as McAdams is only around for medical emergencies.

The film moves well once it gets to the second act. Cumberbatch moping is a little much; his performance doesn’t have any nuance. Maybe it did on set, but if so, Derrickson goes out of his way not to shoot it. Long shots, extreme long shots, bad expository summary sequences. Derrickson plays it completely safe. Even when Doctor Strange gets visually fantastic, Derrickson rushes it along so there’s not time to regard that fantastic.

Anyway, once Cumberbatch starts doing magic, it picks up. Then he runs into Mikkelsen and the film improves big time. Of course, then the third act is a mess and Mikkelsen’s villain level gets downgraded. The action finish is also contrived in just a way to keep Derrickson from having to direct anything too complicated. His action is like watching a video game cut scene. One where you aren’t worried about any of the characters being in danger.

And the cape stuff is good (Cumberbatch gets a magic cape once he’s a wizard). And Cumberbatch and Benedict Wong are almost good together.

Doctor Strange’s lack of ambitions, narrative or visual, hurt it. But the script and Derrickson’s disinterest in his actors hurt it more. Still, it’s usually entertaining. It could definitely have been worse. Cumberbatch’s lack of personality probably helps Doctor Strange. The film wouldn’t know what to do with any.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Scott Derrickson; screenplay by Jon Spaihts, Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Sabrina Plisco and Wyatt Smith; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange), Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), Rachel McAdams (Christine Palmer), and Benedict Wong (Wong).


Snowpiercer (2013, Bong Joon-ho)

Snowpiercer is relentless. There are three quiet moments; I’m not estimating, I’m counting. The final quiet moment comes with some commentary on the earlier quiet moments. The relentlessness is appropriate, as the film concerns a train traveling through a frozen wasteland housing the last survivors of the human race. It’s a post-apocalyptic rumination on remorse and violence. Director Bong treats the viewer as a passenger on the train, forcing the viewer’s perspective through protagonist Chris Evans.

At times, the film seems episodic, which is only appropriate as the first act comes to a close and Evans–along with his fellow insurgents (they’re the poor people in the rear of the train)–discovers the train’s cars are all different. So it’s appropriate the journey through those cars is going to be different. Vignettes might be a strong description, but maybe not. Especially not when considering how Bong lets supporting characters’ subplots play out in background.

The casting is flawless. While Tilda Swinton spectacularly chews through all of her scenes, there’s great work from Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Ewen Bremner. The three leads–Evans, Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung–are all fantastic. Song only speaks Korean, but is excellent when just walking around. It’s a reluctant leading man performance from Evans; he, and all the other actors, show their characters’ sufferings without exposition.

Snowpiercer is also a visual feast. Bong’s presentation this train and its passengers is a constant surprise.

It’s a hard film; Bong doesn’t offer any quarter, neither does his cast.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; screenplay by Bong and Kelly Masterson, based on a screen story by Bong and the graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette; director of photography, Hong Kyung-pyo; edited by Steve M. Choe; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Ondrej Nekvasil; produced by Jeong Tae-sung, Lee Tae-hun, Park Chan-wook and Steven Nam; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Chris Evans (Curtis), Song Kang-ho (Namgoong Minsu), Tilda Swinton (Mason), Jamie Bell (Edgar), Octavia Spencer (Tanya), Ewen Bremner (Andrew), Ko Ah-sung (Yona), Alison Pill (Teacher), Vlad Ivanov (Franco the Elder), Luke Pasqualino (Grey), John Hurt (Gilliam) and Ed Harris (Wilford).


Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)

With Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson has finally put his directing craft so far ahead of his narrative, the narrative doesn’t matter. Neither, in Moonrise‘s case, do the actors. There isn’t a single outstanding performance in the film… maybe because Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola don’t write one. They’re to the point of using Jason Schwartzman as a gag cameo.

Moonrise is purposefully, aggressively artificial–Bob Balaban plays an omnipotent, future narrator who interacts with the characters. But it doesn’t really matter because Anderson’s craft is outstanding and the writing is still decent. A lot of the scenes between preteen outcasts Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are lovely.

Anderson shoots as much of the film as he can in profile; the camera pans to introduce new action instead of cutting. Partially due to the film’s artificiality–partially to Anderson and cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman’s photography–it works. Moonrise isn’t supposed to be real. For instance, Tilda Swinton’s reduced to her job title.

Swinton’s no great shakes in the picture, but she’s not supposed to be. She’s gag casting, much like Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel. Keitel’s the best of those three. Bruce Willis and Edward Norton both do pretty well, though neither have enough material. Anderson and Coppola give Bill Murray absolutely nothing–he doesn’t even interact with his kids in the film, just barks near them. As his wife, Frances McDormand is better.

Moonrise Kingdom‘s a masterfully produced film. It’s just pointless, save demonstrating Anderson’s abilities as a director.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Wes Anderson; written by Anderson and Roman Coppola; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Adam Stockhausen; produced by Anderson, Scott Rudin, Jeffrey Dawson and Steven M. Rales; released by Focus Features.

Starring Jared Gilman (Sam), Kara Hayward (Suzy), Edward Norton (Scout Master Ward), Bruce Willis (Captain Sharp), Bill Murray (Walt Bishop), Frances McDormand (Laura Bishop), Tilda Swinton (Social Services), Jason Schwartzman (Cousin Ben), Harvey Keitel (Commander Pierce) and Bob Balaban (Narrator).


Constantine (2005, Francis Lawrence)

Until the last minute, which introduces the idea Keanu Reeves is going to be narrating the film (which doesn’t start with him and has a number of scenes without him), I was going to say nice things about Constantine. I wasn’t even going to point out the son of the devil who’s coming to Earth is doing it through an illegal immigrant from Mexico. I wasn’t going to mention how Tilda Swinton seems to be the go to androgynous actor. I was even going to say something nice about the music, but the end credit music, which comes right after that lousy voiced over narration, it’s awful.

It’s definitely one of Reeves’s better performances. He never once comes across like Ted.

Rachel Weisz is terrible–I can’t believe she’s won an Oscar–but Shia LaBeouf is mildly amusing as the sidekick and Djimon Hounsou’s solid in a smaller part. Peter Stormare has a good cameo as Satan. Swinton’s awful.

Lawrence does a pretty good job directing, which I found odd since he did such an awful job with his Will Smith as a scientist movie–maybe that one was just too unbelievable. There’s some nice Panavision composition, but Lawrence shoots LA like it’s New York, which isn’t bad at all, but is peculiar–as compared to Sam Raimi, who shoots New York like LA.

The special effects are all right, the movie moves at a decent pace. It’s totally fine until the last minute, like I said, when it flops.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Lawrence; screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, based on a story by Brodbin and the DC Comics character created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by Wayne Wahrman; music by Brian Tyler and Klaus Badelt; production designer, Naomi Shohan; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Erwin Stoff, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Akiva Goldsman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Keanu Reeves (John Constantine), Rachel Weisz (Angela Dodson), Shia LaBeouf (Chas), Tilda Swinton (Gabriel), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Father Hennessy), Djimon Hounsou (Midnite), Gavin Rossdale (Balthazar) and Peter Stormare (Satan).


The Limits of Control (2009, Jim Jarmusch)

Someone–Ebert maybe–is going to laud The Limits of Control. The nicest thing one can really say about it is it isn’t abjectly terrible. There aren’t many bad performances (Tilda Swinton’s lame and Bill Murray’s awful and Isaach De Bankolé is weak when he has more lines than the Terminator) and Jarmusch really does know how to frame a shot. But it’s a piece of malarky. It’s supposed to come off as subversive and anti-American in the end–I can’t really explain how without spoiling–and instead it just comes off as silly. You want to see sublime, subversive commentary on American foreign policy, read Warren Ellis’s Crécy. At its best, Limits of Control is obvious… at its worst, well, to put it bluntly, Jarmusch is full of shit.

Jarmusch has always been–often been–an international filmmaker. Limits of Control is a fine example. Set in Spain with an African leading man, there are Mexican actors, British, American, Spanish, probably a French actor in there somewhere… Jarmusch’s has got some great plays with language. But this exotic cast list is mostly just a diversion. It’s to make the audience feel like he or she is watching something, well, art house.

The most striking success of Limits of Control is its commentary on the spy thriller genre in general. It owes a lot to Hitchcock’s 1930s British thrillers, with the MacGuffin somewhat extracted from the film. The result is a boring two hours of people acting suspiciously with coincidence after coincidence occurring without a thread to tie them. So what. Jarmusch could have cut the pay-off scenes out of The Lady Vanishes and he’d get a similar effect. Well, maybe not The Lady Vanishes because so much of it relies on chemistry and Limits of Control has none. It’s like Jarmusch knew he’d have to do something to get people–critics–to talk about his film, so he made Paz de la Huerta take off her clothes for every scene. What’s the effect? Explicit nudity’s boring. Wow, good one. It’s not like Paul Verhoeven didn’t make explicit nudity boring fifteen years ago.

At times it seems like Jarmusch is going somewhere. Like it’s going to be The Courier’s Tragedy or something. It never is. In fact, the best way to describe The Limits of Control is The Courier’s Tragedy without the point. It’s Jarmusch spinning his wheels until the end–the big reveal in The Limits of Control is, literally, a pin.

Then some of it slowly starts to make sense. But it’s dumb, so who cares?

John Hurt’s great. Jean-François Stévenin has a good small role. de la Huerta isn’t bad. When he’s not talking De Bankolé is great.

I think Jarmusch was going for some kind of mystical realism with the film too.

He fails.

Oh, and how did he misuse Christopher Doyle? The colors are all flat and dead.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; music by Boris; production designer, Eugenio Caballero; produced by Gretchen McGowan and Stacey E. Smith; released by Focus Features.

Starring Isaach De Bankolé (Lone Man), Alex Descas (Creole), Jean-François Stévenin (French), Óscar Jaenada (Waiter), Luis Tosar (Violin), Paz de la Huerta (Nude), Tilda Swinton (Blonde), Youki Kudoh (Molecules), John Hurt (Guitar), Gael García Bernal (Mexican), Hiam Abbass (Driver) and Bill Murray (American).


Burn After Reading (2008, Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coens usually write tight scripts. Burn After Reading doesn’t have a particularly tight script. Instead, it’s got a bunch of great performances and funny scenes–astoundingly good dialogue (their use of curse words for humorous effect is noteworthy)–and some great details. But the film isn’t really much of a story. Literally speaking, it’s about what happens after the CIA decides to transfer John Malkovich over to the State Department for no specified reason. In the film’s first uproarious exchange, Malkovich objects to being classified an alcoholic by a Mormon (Burn came before Prop 8, so there–unfortunately–isn’t any mention of alien planets). But the film isn’t really about Malkovich. He’s in quite a bit of it–and is excellent in the film in ways he hasn’t gotten to be excellent in quite a while–but he’s not the lead by any means.

Burn distracts from its lack of protagonist or tight plotting with the funny business. There’s a reasonably traditional first act with Malkovich, but only until it introduces Tilda Swinton (as Malkovich’s wife) and George Clooney (as her lover). Swinton turns in the film’s only bad performance and it isn’t really her fault, it’s the Coen’s. She plays a pediatrician who’s cruel to kids (in front of their parents). Doesn’t seem like she’d make it long in that professional. But it gets a little worse–I don’t think the Coens even bother to name her well in the film. I’m seeing her character’s name in the credits and it’s something of a surprise… like I only would have figured it out through process of elimination.

Anyway, once they show up, it’s not long before Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt arrive. McDormand and Pitt have lots of the film’s best scenes. Pitt shows off why he’s such a great comic actor–they’re both playing dopes, with McDormand a little smarter (only a little). As far as the performances go, Clooney probably comes in second behind Malkovich. While Malkovich gives this great performance, it’s just this technically excellent actor with good material. Clooney–in his Coen Brothers mode–creates this wonderful character, full of tics and idiosyncrasies. Much like the film itself, he exists to amuse.

The only other supporting roles of note are Richard Jenkins, David Rasche and J.K. Simmons. Jenkins does very well–but he always does very well–even if he doesn’t have much to work with. Rasche and Simmons have these fantastic scenes together, which is where Burn After Reading is so frustrating. Their scenes together–two of them–are comic gold, but the scenes’ presence in the film itself is what works against Burn After Reading as a solid narrative.

It’s the Coen Brothers making a movie to get belly laughs and not taking anything else into account. I’m sure one could argue the lunacy of the plot is some kind of post-modern spy movie, but it’d be inaccurate. Burn After Reading is a really funny movie. It probably ought to be something more, given the numerous excellent performances (McDormand, who I didn’t mention before, only creates a caricature, but it’s a good one). But its failing in that department actually doesn’t feel like much of a failure.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Focus Features.

Starring George Clooney (Harry Pfarrer), Frances McDormand (Linda Litzke), John Malkovich (Osbourne Cox), Tilda Swinton (Katie Cox), Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer), Richard Jenkins (Ted Treffon), Elizabeth Marvel (Sandy Pfarrer), David Rasche (CIA Officer), J.K. Simmons (CIA Superior) and Olek Krupa (Krapotkin).


Broken Flowers (2005, Jim Jarmusch)

If I had any foresight, I would have realized Broken Flowers wasn’t going to end well. Actually, most of the film is just a ruse to disguise that fact. Instead of thinking about how the film was going to turn out, I spent all my time marveling at Jarmusch. His composition, his dialogue, everything, just beautiful. The first hour of Broken Flowers is wondrous, to some degree because it’s the portion of the film most featuring Jeffrey Wright as Bill Murray’s detective novel-obsessed best friend. The relationship between Wright and Murray is the film’s high-point, with Jarmusch handling it… well, perfectly isn’t right, because it’s such a rare, fantastic relationship, there’s nothing available for comparison. The first twenty minutes of the film, featuring Murray and Wright going over to each other’s houses (they live next door to each other), set an expectation for Broken Flowers, one the next forty minutes do nothing to hinder.

Watching it transition from that friendship to the plot, Murray tracking down ex-girlfriends, I wondered how Jarmusch was going to manage. Basically, it’s all Murray, all the time. The viewer learns nothing about the girlfriends beyond the visible, certainly not the information Murray’s searching for, and each successive girlfriend is more mysterious than the last. So much so, when it finally gets to be Jessica Lange’s turn, she’s overshadowed by her character’s assistant, played by Chloë Sevigny. Sevigny’s hardly got any lines even, but something about the scene construction, she’s more active than Lange and more memorable. As the variety of the women’s lives takes over, some of Jarmusch’s construction techniques begin to show. The first visit, with Sharon Stone, is best. The last visit is worst, as it’s short and bored with itself, assuming the viewer is ready to get the film over with.

The end of the film would be infuriating if, like I mentioned, Jarmusch hadn’t fooled the viewer. There’s no good ending to certain films and Broken Flowers is one of those films. What Jarmusch manages to do, for the majority of the picture, is make the viewer not care what’s going to happen, because the scenic beauty is so great.

As far as actors, the most surprising performance was from Jeffrey Wright, just because I’ve never seen him act well (or even acceptably) before. Bill Murray’s good, best in those scenes with Wright and the ones with Sharon Stone, who’s good too. The rest of the performances are all fine, but no one really stands out. Christopher McDonald has a really restrained role and I’m used to him going a little nuts, so I spent that scene waiting for him to burst.

Broken Flowers is a spectacular disappointment, but whatever… most of it is excellent and all of it is beautifully made. Even the lame ending has some great camerawork.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Jarmusch; screenplay by Jarmusch, inspired by an idea from Bill Raden and Sara Driver; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; music by Mulatu Astatke; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Jon Kilik and Stacey Smith; released by Focus Features.

Starring Bill Murray (Don Johnston), Jeffrey Wright (Winston), Sharon Stone (Laura), Frances Conroy (Dora), Jessica Lange (Carmen), Tilda Swinton (Penny), Julie Delpy (Sherry), Chloe Sevigny (Carmen’s assistant) and Christopher McDonald (Ron).


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