The Marvel Cinematic Universe has many superheroes with extraordinary powers, but for my money Dr. Stephen Strange has the most intriguing story. Created by Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange works as a lauded neurosurgeon in New York City, a man impressed with his own expertise. A car accident damages his hands so badly that he can no longer operate.   

His life's work in the balance, after trying all western medicine can offer, in desperation Stephen travels to Katmandu to try alternative healing. Dr. Strange gets more than he bargained for as he encounters a metaphysical universe beyond his initial comprehension. Above all, Dr. Strange must forget all he thinks he knows to overcome his own egotistical self-aggrandizement. Love interest Dr. Christine Palmer helps in that regard, though it would be so refreshing for the romantic liaison to be more than a helpmate. 

Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson showcases his great cast beginning with Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Stephen Strange, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, Rachel McAdams as Dr. Palmer, Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, Benedict Wong as Wong, and the always wonderful Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. They act and, often a more difficult task, interact credibly, listening to and countering each other. True professionals, the actors also explain and convincingly present the philosophical and theoretical elements, thanks to a complex but absorbing examination of life's mysteries: mind and matter.

The special effects are exactly that, very special, especially because they connect with the ideas rather than obligatory superhero fights artificially interjected. When Dr. Strange folds and warps time, energy and space, it becomes a visual feast reminiscent of Inception, but it also visualizes his journey. And when transporting characters to and through altered dimensions is needed, sound and image concoct a thrilling creation of complementary factors. In addition, attention has been given to small details of the art direction, including the makeup.

Fans might come for the CGI, the astral projection and even the enjoyable humor that Cumberbatch interjects so seamlessly, as he does in Sherlock. But Doctor Strange, while not a physics lesson, includes tantalizing play with science, and it counsels the reining in of inflated ego. With both of these in one film, count me in. At area cinemas in both 2D and 3D.

 

 

Writer/director Damien Chazelle's La La Land offers a delightful, exuberant indulgence in song and dance in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers tradition. With romance on their minds, Mia and Sebastian find themselves adrift in Hollywood, crisscrossing each other in their aspirational endeavors. He's a jazz pianist who can't conform to playing bland music and she can't quite secure a desirable role. 

Before the story settles into Mia and Sebastian's on again/off again fling, the film begins with an incredible, show stopping musical number on a congested L.A. freeway. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren has choreographed an exhilarating opening number with drivers in and out of their cars, dancing on them, through the lines of automobiles, and with each other. It's so dynamic a beginning that it takes an enormous push of energy from Emma Stone, not the most energetic of actors, and Ryan Gosling, not the most animated, to reignite the action. 

For their encounters, Chazelle does successfully establish a different tone, one of yearning and desire. Can Stone and Gosling sing and dance with the best? Well, no, their voices are slight, but they're a joy to watch, and Gosling learned to play the piano quite well and Stone exudes a plucky frustration. In a strong, too small supporting performance, John Legend as Keith brings his historical insight about jazz to the proceedings, and J.K. Simmons is the inflexible, conservative boss. 

In Whiplash, Chazelle structured the film to the drum rhythms he championed. Here he channels some of the musical classics he screened for his cast and crew during production, including The Band Wagon and Top Hat. The meticulous design extended to Austin Gorg's art direction, especially the Technicolor palette that visualizes the seductiveness of our fantasies. This includes costumes as well with Mia in a silky, flowing dress as she and Sebastian merge in perfect emotional synchronicity. Credit also to composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who keep the mood light in a dream factory world that also shatters aspiration and crushes the ambitious. In short, La La Land  beautifully establishes and balances the illusory appeal of our dreams with harsh reality in a jaunty, entertaining film. Check area listings.

 

Women often are castigated as devious when they're clever or smart. Miss Madeleine Elizabeth Sloane will be so denigrated, plus she will be compared to a man in her position. She is a lobbyist, and she knows to do a work-around without smearing her blood-red lipstick.

Liz Sloane works hard for one company until her values -- yes, this lobbyist has values -- are compromised by a gun bill. So she high-heels over to the smaller, grubbier competition with her sharp skill set to see that the bill passes in Congress by whatever it takes. That might include espionage with a robot-roach, gossip-mongering, tallying, betraying, exploiting people, crossing lines, and campaigning.

Lobbying, she says -- and practices -- is about foresight, playing your trump card. Miss Sloane has given up everything for her career, which leaves her paying for sexual pleasure. She has left chits everywhere, to be called in as accounts receivable. She outsources social interaction. She is like a coach, ordering in brief, succinct bites, brooking no nonsense. Her sound bytes include "get going" and "you're fired." She leaves bits of mystery in and outside the film.

Jessica Chastain embodies Miss Sloane with every fiber, her right index finger pushing that strand of hair away from her face, yet revealing nothing. She is supported by the excellence of Sam Waterston, a lawyer; John Lithgow, a senator; Jake Lacy, an escort; Gugu Mbatha-Raw, an operative; and Alison Pill an insider. Director John Madden, who also directed "Proof" and "Debt," reveals only as needed and still leaves questions. He moves in and around a trial without making that trial a climax, following John Perera's first screenplay.

Miss Sloane is a Greek tragedy set in Washington, D.C. It is an admirable study in morals and character and deviousness -- and filmmaking.

   

 

Director David Frankel's Collateral Beauty tackles a truly difficult subject, the death of a child, and handles it sensitively and seriously. The title refers to the feeling of a profound connection to the world as the complement to tragedy. Though the collateral beauty concept remains relatively abstract, it is a heartening, comforting balm in the face of such loss.

The story leads into its focus with hotshot New York adman Howard Inlet delivering an enthusiastic, animated pitch for three defining motivators to our lives: love, time and death. Fast forward to three years later and Howard's loss of his six-year-old daughter, whose name he cannot even bring himself to speak. Howard has become uncommunicative; he's shut down though his company finds itself in a tough financial situation. His three partners desperately need him to vote his controlling shares, while Howard writes letters to love, time and death. And so personifications of Love, Time and Death will visit Howard.

The exceptional ensemble cast does a fine job across the board: the anchor Will Smith as the bereaved father Howard; Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, and Edward Norton as Howard's business partners. Each of them wrestles with significant problems of their own: respectively, reconciling with making career the top priority, facing a terminal illness, and post-divorce coping with a much loved but now alienated daughter. As actors contracted to perform as the abstract personas Love, Time, and Death, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore and Helen Mirren compellingly deliver theoretical observations about what frustrates, inspires and measures our lives.

However, as good as the acting is, the actors' different styles don't mesh well. In addition, the tone shifts considerably from scene to scene, sometimes a bit flippant (Knightley), at other moments semi-humorous (Norton), and at times poignant (Mirren). Establishing and maintaining a unified feel rests with the director; and while films certainly can and do move through emotional variations, the shifts should occur more smoothly than they do here. Still, Collateral Beauty asks us to consider monumental topics and to imagine a tragic event with empathy and insight, honesty and thoughtfulness, admitting that the pain will never be fixed. It's refreshing to have a film dramatize the subject of grief with sensitivity. At a Landmark Theatre.

 

Watch the opening sequence with both eyes open and that third eye unblinking. Dancing Venus of Willendorf-type marionettes in military dress become real, big women with thigh-high boots, and that becomes Celtic knots of highways seen on high. It's a series of moving still lifes, befogged and misted.

Then the exposition begins. Susan, a gallery owner, is saying good-bye to her husband, who is off with his doxy -- something Susan is beginning to cotton to -- when a package is delivered. Inside is a manuscript written by her first husband, Edward, and entitled Nocturnal Animals, his nickname for sleepless Susan, to whom he dedicated the book.

Susan toddles off to bed with a maybe-good, certainly tantalizing book to read. Whereupon the film becomes the book about a man and his wife on vacation in Texas, far from Susan's glittery world. There are a film chase, right out of the Sam Peckinpaw School of Domestic Terrorism and a book plot from the Rape Culture. Horrified, Susan slams the book shut with her blood-red fingernails. She becomes the woman abandoned in life and in art; she cannot slice the book out of her head, even as she meets with her people at the gallery to discuss art, not life.

Amy Adams plays Susan, suave and slick and terribly believable. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Edward, the husband, and Tony, the protagonist of the novel -- and he never misses a heartbeat in either roles. They are supported finely by Michael Shannon, Isla Fisher, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and a hair-sprayed Laura Linney as Susan's brittle mother.

Tom Ford has made a very scary movie, resplendent with his sense of decorum, of flashbacks among past and present, in novel and life, of color (especially reds), of bleeds and connectors from scene to scene. Nocturnal Animals offers film as crisp, well-cut, tautly sewn, and artfully made to perfection.

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