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“Doctor Strange” other-worldly enjoyable

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“Doctor Strange” is a movie that truly lives up to its title. This is a strange entry in the Marvel Universe, but a unique one. Of all the superheroes, he is the only one who can walk through different dimensions and bend reality. With a movie adaptation out, the possibilities seem endless for a character like this. Of course, the usual origins route has to be done in order to understand who this person is. Chances are if you can get through that, you will have a good time.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon with a high ego yet maintains a lot of ambition. This is proven after a car accident renders his hands useless as he tries to find a way to restore them. An incident like this proves just how far his character will go to save his reputation along with his usefulness. His knowledge of medical procedures show his understanding for the human mind physically but doesn’t have a mental grasp.

His journey leads him to a place in Napal where he learns a group of people might know how to cure his injured hands. As it turns out, this is really a coven of sorcerers who protect the world from evil. Sounds basic on paper, but when you get into the belief system and different spells, “Doctor Strange” starts to become more theoretical. Strange, himself, is more equip with knowing the world as he sees it; through scientific measures and practices. The journey into the place of sorcerers give off a belief vs. fact argument as Strange questions if his traditional methods are more powerful than magic.

However, a character named the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) proves the importance of mystical belief over science. Or at least the two can be one in some way. She proves useful in showing her new accomplice how vast the universe is within secret and odd ways. I liked how the calmness of this character really defined her. True, this is the usual master with knowledgeable ways, but an interesting one. The moments that made her stood out was when she argues with Strange’s faith. My only nitpick is they try to put in this twist about how she might be deceiving her followers which felt a tad unnecessary.

I say that because the main conflict of the plot doesn’t seem to have much room for it. A group of rebels, led by Dannish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who plan to unleash a monster from a darker dimension in hopes to take over the world in some way. But even the good vs. evil aspect feels a tad underplayed when we are exploring this new realm and the possibilities of traveling between space and time. Once we get to the zealots and their grand plan, it almost feels like a footnote after scenes of Strange training and learning about the new world along with its powers.

These effect-heavy scenes were more interesting than the villains as it proves the biggest eye-candy of the movie. We get treated to Strange traveling briefly through different dimensions (almost an homage to the vortex of light in Kubrick’s 2001), jumping through self-made portals and exploring more the sorcerer culture. When it was exploring this bizarre world of magic and mind over matter, it got interesting. But when it picked up and got back to the villains, the plot turns into your basic “whose the real bad guy” scenario.

On the bright side, it makes for a good excuse for intense action scenes that even push the limits of “Inception” and “The Matrix.” “Doctor Strange” goes further by having the sets actually move like the twisted gears of a clock or a puzzling Rubix cube. Between the fist fights, whole buildings and roads twist and roll around and it only gets bigger once we draw down to the climax. Unfortunately, if you took away the amazing effects, all that would exist is clunky fight scenes. The added sets that constantly move at least add tension and a dream-like feeling.

“Doctor Strange” is once again another step in the right direction for Marvel. They already proven before that they can do more than just superhero movies. “Strange” shows Marvel can channel any genre into their heroes and fly with it. The only flaws I do have to nitpick, which keep me from saying this is their best, include some odd pacing  and the handle of the material. In the first 20 minutes or so, the tragic backstory goes immediately into the training and the final third immediately launches itself into the typical good vs. evil battle. And I understand newcomers need to understand key terms in this odd world, but even they break the aspect of telling as opposed to showing. Characters keep mentioning about this massive creature which might destroy the world, but makes the mistake of talking instead of giving us an idea of this being’s power. When we do see this god-like creature, there’s not a sense of menace because we didn’t see this thing or action or understand its motive.

I must also tag on that despite the PG-13 rating, this is not a movie I would recommend for younger viewers. I would dare say this is one of Marvel’s darkest movies in violence and tone. From surgical procedures to a beheading seen in shadow, I’m honestly miffed at how this got away without getting an R rating. On the other hand, what we see is not too graphic to upset, but when you have talks of surgery on the spinal cord and scenes with out of body experiences, this might be something not for kids under 9 or 12. Parental guidance is strongly suggested for this entry.

Although, I can look past the flaws and say “Doctor Strange” was a fun ride. Full of imagination and creative fantasy, I once again find myself wondering what else Marvel has up its sleeve. After traveling through space in “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the world of the small in “Ant Man,” “Strange” goes beyond the realm and even delivers, what I hope, a possible new franchise. One I even predict will be bigger since “Iron Man” made its debut. If not, at least it was a good start to the holiday season.

“Kubo” powerful, emotionally moving and beautiful

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After finally seen it, I have to admit how much I regret passing up “Kubo and the Two Strings” the minute it arrived to theaters. Laika Studios deserves better attention for how impressive their stop-motion animated features are. Even more unique is how they are made for the budget of a simple $60 million. A movie like this almost appears more than that. And yet, much was well spent with great characters, a powerful story and an overall movie-going experience that swept me away. In a sense, I’m tempted to put this on my list of all-time favorite movies. But perhaps, it will in due time once its greatness is more recognized (I’m looking at you Oscars.) I would go as far to say its a great anime (seeing its set in ancient Japan) considering the style and tone does feel like one.

The character of Kubo is highly identifiable. Not because he is a kid, but how imaginative and caring he can be. It’s about as realistic as a typical kid with innocence can get. In the first part of the movie, we get an idea of his surroundings and his limits. How protective he is others and how creative he can be. Gifted with a magic shamisen, Kubo uses this to bring origami to life and tell stories to the local village. A clever way to set up the remainder of the story as Kubo can draft heroic characters and monsters, but sadly stuck on an ending.

His life changes when two witches are after him and has to find three pieces of armor to save him and those around him. Accompanying his journey is a no-nonsense Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed samurai warrior trapped as a humanoid beetle (Matthew McConaughey). And let me tell you, I loved these characters and greatly cared for them. I loved how the Monkey was motherly at times, but knew when to be a fighter and protector. I adored Beetle and how he could provide comic relief for his bad memory as well as his heroic attempts. When one of them was in danger (especially little Kubo), there was a sense of danger and risk that we might loose these heroes. And that’s what I found more intriguing compared to the other summer films this year; there was a sense of care for our characters.

Again, I feel tormented I didn’t see this one sooner to really appreciate its beauty. Watching this was like “Wolf Children,” a movie about growing up and learning its difficulties along the way. To know when to let go and find your place in the universe. That to me is really what this movie was in a nutshell, but more. The lesson at the end is to make your own story and live it. Telling legends are good, but don’t forget to live your tale to the fullest. And even when it ends, those who heard it will remember your story and how important it can be. Few movies this year are able to convey such a heavy message in a unique way.

Thus at the end, I found myself in tears. Tears at the beauty of the animation and the way it concludes. Sometimes, you don’t need a big epic fight to bookend your movie. And that’s something missing from most good vs. evil tales. Without spoiling HOW it ends, violence can defend, but it can’t serve a happy ending in this kind of world. And they way this “alternative” was offered was so powerful and emotional that I had a hard time holding back every tear.

The only thing I do have to nitpick is the use of CGI. To its credit, there are times when it blends perfectly into the environment and obviously animating water in a stop-motion flick is near to impossible. Sometimes the CGI effects can stick out while other times it can blend seamlessly into this colorful world. I even found myself marveling at certain sets and blades of grass wondering what was really there and what was digital. Not to mention there is a great amount of effort and creativity in things like a giant skeleton (which is a big puppet as shown during the end credits) and an array of monsters. Each one feels like they were taken from Japansese folklore in design and poetic movement.

“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a movie I can’t recommend enough. It’s up there with “Coraline” as my favorite film from Laika. There is action, humor and plenty of heart. Not a single frame feels wasted and everything feels perfectly paced. The dark moments feel earned, the quiet moments are put in the right spots and when it gets theoretical about topics like death and what lies beyond, it’s executed in a way that is subtle and executable. So much that even little kids won’t have a hard time with the some of the harsher elements because they will be assured their story will live on even at the end. But it breaks my heart to see not many have given this one the love and respect it deserves at the box-office. I beg of you, see this on the big screen. Because if you blink out on this one, you will miss out on a powerful experience.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Hellraiser

Horror-wood

 

Truly the new face of horror

Truly the new face of horror

Stephen King once claimed to have “seen the future of horror, his name is Clive Barker.” Indeed, Clive Barker is a different kind as his style more delves into the darker aspects of fantasy while giving viewers and readers a creative nightmare that we wish to revisit. While most of his work was adapted to film, his earlier adaptions where not crafted by him. He did the screenplays for 1985’s Underworld and Rawhead Rax but he was disappointed by the final results. When it came to adapt his novella The Hellbound Heart, Clive took it upon himself to take the director’s chair and give his own personal spin on how his adaptions should be.

Hellraiser is probably the easiest to recognize because of its setup that feels like a different take on Pandora’s Box. Outside of the basic gore and bloodshed, what viewers remember the most is the underlying theme about the dangers of pleasure. Pleasure from love, murder and most of all sadism. What I find interesting is the how the universe is set up along with the supernatural beings to go with it that really hold this movie together.

Sean Chapman plays a self-absorbed Frank Cotton who obtains a strange puzzle box that if solved will unleash a set of demons called the Cenobites. Sure enough, he solves it and his prize to claim is getting torn to  bits by the masochist beings. Years later, his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) takes refuge in the house Frank lived at while his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) is revealed to have an enormous affair with the vigorous sibling. However, all is not lost as Frank is resurrected after a few drops of blood hit where he stood rendering him as a skeleton with some guts. Julia finds out its her old fling and decides to help by bringing fresh male victims so Frank can get more energy.

Never has there been a strange love story between woman and nervous system till now!

Never has there been a strange love story between woman and nervous system till now!

The reason Frank is in hiding is that he manged to escape the Cenobites somehow and fears they will come after him again. At this point after consuming some date bait from Julia, he develops flesh and blood while trying to remain alive and well. Meanwhile, Larry’s daughter Kristy (Ashley Laurence) thinks somethings is up as she finds her uncle Frank to be nothing more but bones and flesh minus the skin. At one point, she obtains the puzzle box and comes face to face with the Cenobites who promise no harm unless Frank is delivered to them.

As said before, the whole movie is very much one creative yet twisted nightmare that feels never ending. Elements of surreal nature like Frank’s status as a body without skin and the world of the Cenobites really add to the dream like nature. Unlike Nightmare on Elm Street where its a battle between dream and reality, Hellraiser is the dream that we wish to escape but can’t help but admire how dark it is. I find it interesting how Julia wishes to serve her love but is stuck between a living corpse in the attic and her own spouse. My only problem is that we spend so much time seeing the chemistry between Julia and Frank that Larry feels shoved off to the side. You could argue the movie is more about the consequence of giving in to twisted pleasures but when we feel Larry is going to be on the chopping block, there is little care here. We don’t get to see much of Larry or have a handle on how developed this character should be. There are moments when we don’t want to see him die but that’s very much because of how “goodie” of a character he’s played out to be.

The Cebtobites in all their glory

The Cebtobites in all their glory

While the story has a few clinks, the biggest star of all is the special effects and make-up work. This truly is a technical achievement showing how well practical effects can be utilized from a skinless corpse to freaky demons that snap their jaws at you. Despite being dated, if you take into accord the $1 million budget here, its impressive already. The cinematography has a very slick approach that is hard to match. You have to give credit for such craftsman ship here.

Viewers might disappointed to read that the Cenobites don’t fully show up for the last third. The focus of the story is more on Frank and his dilemma while Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and the gang feel more like a plot element at times. But even in their first carnation, they look very intimidating. I like the different desings that alomst play off how “evil” they can act. Theses are the kind of demons you don’t want to make a deal with seeing how much they go back on their promise of saving you. The final is a notable highlight as hell literally breaks loose and our main heroin has a lot of monsters to get through before making it out alive.

Hellraiser is a unique movie that can’t be doubled again. Its really warning us about the dangers of giving into deeper desires as Frank keeps feeding on life in hopes of being fully human again. There’s not much negatives to think about aside from the fact that the Kristy character doesn’t come in till halfway. There’s so much focus and attention to the Frank and Julia storyline that it doesn’t mean much when we cut to a different character. There’s some images that will never leave my head but I can’t say this is a “hands-down” master piece. That goes to another of Clive’s films which I talk about in the near future. Hellraiser is no classic but its a memorable that feels like a throwback the Grim tales of the past or ones we’ve heard of before. All in all, this is a crowd pleaser that houses few negatives to pick on.