Tag Archives: Chiwetel Ejiofor

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).


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Redbelt (2008, David Mamet)

I was apprehensive about Redbelt–mostly due to the awkward trailers–but it was totally unfounded. The film’s story, Mamet’s narrative, resists being abbreviated or advertised. It’s all very gradual, very quiet, which each scene building on the one previous. It’s probably Mamet’s finest film as a director, his widescreen composition is wonderful–there’s this one shot where Emily Mortimer’s head, in profile, sits in the center of the screen while she talks and it’s exceptional. Also because he forces himself to shut up. Instead of letting characters talk, he brings up Stephen Endelman’s essential score and lets the body language do the work. It’s a David Mamet film where silence is key.

Instead of being a thoughtful, intellectual approach to the karate movie (that long moth-balled genre), Mamet tells a story where the cost of the philosophy–paid so much lip-service in the genre–often outweighs its rewards. Actually, for much of Redbelt, it’s hard to see where there’s any reward, but Mamet manages to show it and does it in an amazing, big, booming Hollywood way and turns in it in perfectly. Redbelt, at times, reminded me of Ghost Dog, but told straight.

Mamet does get to do the rousing fight scene here and it might be, given the importance in the story and for the protagonist, the best fight scene ever in a film. It’s not the most visually dynamic, but the gravity of it… the following will sound a little glib, but Mamet also might have made the best superhero movie ever here too.

The cast hurts nothing. Obviously, Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in an outstanding, amazing performance, but he always seems to turn in those performances so it’s no surprise. There’s a great scene, Mortimer’s first class at the jujitsu academy, where Ejiofor just sits there for a moment. It’s a quiet scene, played from Mortimer’s confused perspective, but Ejiofor’s expression alone tells the viewer the answer to her question, before she even asks it. Mortimer’s good too, with Mamet giving her three great big scenes. Alice Braga is also good, even though Mamet intentionally doesn’t give her big scenes. The Mamet Repertory Actors–Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna and Rebecca Pidgeon–are all good in smaller roles. Tim Allen’s turn as a burning-out Hollywood star is excellent, but it’s some of the unknowns who turn in the most affecting supporting performances. Max Martini has a vocal role and he’s great, but Jose Pablo Cantillo–in a nearly silent role–is almost as good.

Mamet, at his best, can make anything excellent (I always forget he’s a far from prolific director), can turn a genre film into an essential. Redbelt is Mamet at his best.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Stephen Endelman; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Chrisann Verges; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mike Terry), Emily Mortimer (Laura Black), Alice Braga (Sondra Terry), Tim Allen (Chet Frank), Jose Pablo Cantillo (Snowflake), Rodrigo Santoro (Bruno Silva), Ricky Jay (Marty Brown), Joe Mantegna (Jerry Weiss), Rebecca Pidgeon (Zena Frank), David Paymer (Richard), Max Martini (Joe Collins) and John Machado (Augusto Silva).


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Inside Man (2006, Spike Lee)

Inside Man has got to be the cleverest remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three made to date, starring Denzel Washington as Walter Matthau and Clive Owen as Robert Shaw and Jodie Foster as Martin Balsam. Okay, just kidding. Kind of. Inside Man, rather pointedly, follows in the Dog Day Afternoon tradition of the present action being the robbery and hostage situation and the film’s running time being divided, more or less equally, between cops and robbers. And Denzel Washington is playing Walter Matthau, or the same kind of role Matthau played in Pelham… a non-specific cop role with a little back-story but only enough to confuse the most gullible viewer he’s not just a cog in the plot. Washington turns in Inside Man’s least compelling performance (except maybe the–until this film–always reliable Chiwetel Ejiofar, who follows Washington around and gets shown up by Daryl Mitchell in a practical cameo)–Washington wears a hat to make him stand out. In terms of being an actor’s role or an actor’s film, it’s embarrassing, but Inside Man doesn’t offer either of those things. Instead, it’s a real solid, traditional bank robbery movie.

One of the film’s most traditional elements, after it opens–almost as a tease to the audience–different (more in line with a Spike Lee “joint”), is Terence Blanchard’s score. It’s classic Hollywood music for the genre. It’s really good and effective, but it’s the norm. Spike’s direction reminds a lot of the third Die Hard, probably the first time I’ve ever thought of John McTiernan during a Spike Lee film, with only one patented walking shot and a few too many dolly zooms (like four–Spike’s a little too good of a director to use exclamation points).

Clive Owen’s excellent, turning in the film’s best performance (though the morality angle of the script is kind of cheap and uninteresting). Jodie Foster is okay in her role, though it seems like they really wanted her name on the poster or something, because any number of non-Academy Award winning prestige actors could have played the part. Willem Dafoe has a smaller role and he’s excellent, getting in to the communal spirit of the cop scenes in a way Washington cannot. Even Ejiofar manages well in those moments, but Washington is in a movie star role and can’t break for the small stuff. Christopher Plummer–in the hiss-friendly villain role–does a little less than he could, even if the character is terribly defined in the script.

The script’s high points are the plotting–which Spike and Blanchard had a lot to do with making great–and the heist itself. They aren’t so good in the character moments. Also really good are the cop moments, though it’s weird to see Spike do a traditional cop movie after he made such pointed changes–with great success–to Clockers. There’s a neat little Clockers reference in Inside Man, but I’d imagine the films are for very different audiences.

I do have to say, I find the film’s reputation for it’s plot innovations a little silly. Besides being predictable–except perhaps in regards to its MacGuffin–it’s essentially a remake of Quick Change, only serious….

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Spike Lee; written by Russell Gewirtz; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Detective Keith Frazier), Clive Owen (Dalton Russell), Jodie Foster (Madeline White), Christopher Plummer (Arthur Case), Willem Dafoe (Capt. John Darius) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Detective Bill Mitchell).


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Dirty Pretty Things (2002, Stephen Frears)

At some point during Dirty Pretty Things, maybe the half-way point, I didn’t check, I realized the film’s non-traditional approach was holding it back. It’s ironic (or maybe not, I’m sure I’m using the word wrong) since the third act is the most predictable thing I’ve seen in recent memory. I sat and waited for my predictions to come true and all of them did… even the last few moments, which were straight from a Hollywood playbook. Being straight from that playbook isn’t even a bad thing, necessarily–yes, I realize I just said not playing from it was holding Pretty Things back–but changing… modes of transport (I was going to go metaphor, but got too self-conscious) handicaps the thing. What starts as a good, solid different film becomes everything it wasn’t at the beginning. It preaches, which is one of the great things the first two acts do not do.

I thought, when the film got going, it was going to be an interesting, hotel-set mystery. It isn’t. It’s half traditional thriller, half character study. The character study eventually loses. Very little happens in the first twenty or thirty minutes and, once it does, a lot of the film’s charm disappears. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is astounding. The poster I remember is the one with Audrey Tautou’s name above the title and the definite suggestion of a thriller. Obviously, American (especially Miramax) marketing of foreign product tends to be bullshit, but in this case, it’s an incredible slight against the film. But I’m glad, since I went into it knowing Ejiofor was good in other stuff and getting to see him–unexpectedly–in the lead. Tautou’s supporting, nothing more. She’s in it more than most of the other characters, since she’s the McGuffin in many ways. Any time something happens, it’s somehow because of Tautou (and occasionally because of Ejiofor’s concern for her). Sophie Okonedo is in it a lot less, but she has a lot more of an impact, just because of how her character shows up in the film. She tends to be in scenes where Ejiofor is defined through his actions, rather than his reactions to Tautou. Not to say Tautou’s performance isn’t good. It’s fine. It just doesn’t resonate very well… she doesn’t embody her character enough to make the character’s sometimes unlikely story fly.

As the villain, Sergi Lopez is excellent.

Frears does a good job throughout, maintaining an off-putting atmosphere to the film. He only really slips a couple times. Once with the Jaws dolly zoom and again in the film’s last few shots, when he inexplicably loses the distinctive color palette. At that point, however, the film had turned into the inspirational tale of an illegal immigrant instead of a story about a human being.

A few more words about Ejiofor. In many ways, since he is in most scenes, Dirty Pretty Things is a fantastic showcase for his ability. He gets to display a wide range–even though the script does him the disservice of trying to make him ominous, which is an absolutely ludicrous device (maybe the worst in the film), and even then he works through it. The only downside is how infuriating it is when the script makes him have to do (or say, especially say) something stupid.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Steven Knight; director of photography, Chris Menges; edited by Mick Audsley; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski; produced by Tracey Seaward and Robert Jones; released by Miramax Films and BBC Films.

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Okwe), Audrey Tautou (Senay), Sergi Lopez (Sneaky), Sophie Okonedo (Juliette) and Benedict Wong (Guo Yi).


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