And the Oscar Goes To… Not a Clue

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Spoiler-Free Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

This particular Doctor Strange movie is an odd duck. It infuses traditional Marvel/MCU superhero stuff with a psychological horror vibe–and zombies–which is great if you’re a fan of director Sam Raimi’s horror franchise The Evil Dead, and not so great if you aren’t. I’m a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch in most any role, including Stephen Strange, so I can cut the film some slack. But horror’s really not my thing. I prefer my Avengers more grounded in reality–even if that ‘reality’ involves parallel universes and alternate versions of themselves (see: Spider-Man: No Way Home).

Spoiler-Free Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home

I’ve been extremely cautious about venturing back into theaters. But I decided to celebrate my COVID booster shot with a limited-capacity IMAX screening of Spider-Man: No Way Home. After myriad viewings in recent months of heavily-touted awards-season contenders, I needed a big ‘escape’ movie. And boy did I get it with Spider-Man: No Way Home. There is a lot going on in this movie, much of which I can’t — or won’t — reveal. Just know that if you’re a fan of the Marvel and Spiderman franchises, you’ve got to see it soon, before spoilers spoil the fun. Not that Spider-Man is all fun. It’s not. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be genuinely moved and genuinely entertained throughout the 2 1/2 hour run time that includes sitting through all the credits for THREE bonus scenes.

Review: The Power of the Dog

Set in the gorgeous wide open expanses of 1925 Wyoming, The Power of the Dog from Oscar-winning director Jane Campion (The Piano, Angel at My Table) is downright suffocating a lot of the time. This sure to be in the Oscar pool psychological thriller/western tells the story of a pair of rich ranching brothers, Phil and George Burbank, who are as different as night and day. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch, TV’s “Sherlock”, The Courier) is the walking embodiment of toxic masculinity, violent and mean to everyone in his path. George (Jesse Plemons) is more gentle and less rugged. But when he marries the local widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst, Spiderman, Melancholia) and brings her and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road, X-Men franchise) home, Phil is anything but the welcoming brother-in-law, leaving no opportunity behind to ridicule them all.

Review: The Courier

This is another “based on true events” film. The story begins in 1960 as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is threatening to bury the West. The CIA and MI6 are scrambling for ways to get some inside info on the Soviet nuclear program, and to that end they make the unlikely decision to recruit a British salesman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). He’s done business for some time in Eastern Europe so heading to Moscow wouldn’t be a red flag to Soviet intelligence. And he’s not expected to do anything except be a courier for leaked intel. Former Soviet military intelligence colonel, now trade minister Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) has already made contact. He has unfettered access to all the crucial intelligence, and he’s got a conscience. He may be a believer in the Soviet Socialist system, but he’s willing to work against it to stop the march towards what he sees as inevitable nuclear war. And together Oleg and Grenville save the world. Really.

Review: The Mauritanian

This drama based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s NY Times best-selling memoir “Guantánamo Diary” tells the story of a man swept up in the US government’s post-9/11 frenzy to find the perpetrators. Slahi was renditioned into Guantánamo and suspected of recruiting for al Qaeda. He spent years there without being charged or tried, in a horrible limbo. And he’d still be there if not for gutsy defense attorney Nancy Hollander who took on his case. Jodie Foster plays Hollander. But the one that keeps you watching is Tahar Rahim who plays Slahi. Rahim burst on the scene in 2009 in the French film The Prophet where he also played a prisoner. But here he plays a much more nuanced character, fighting for his life against seemingly insurmountable odds. He’s the reason to see this somewhat familiar legal thriller.

Quickie Review: 1917

I’m not big on epic war dramas. They all tend to share the same brutal message: War is hell. But 1917 is surprisingly engaging, and best seen on the biggest screen possible. It’s an immersive, visceral film that relies on a gimmick of sorts to set it apart from classic war movies like Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk, etc. The film is designed to give the impression that it’s all shot in one continuous take. Gimmick or not, it works. 1917 follows the perilous journey of two young British soldiers sent across enemy lines at the height of the First World War to deliver a message that could potentially save 1600 men from walking into a deadly trap set by the Germans. It reeks of a suicide mission from the start. But one of the young men, Lance Corporal Blake (Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) has a very personal stake in getting the message across. His brother is among those heading into an ambush.

Spoiler-Free Review: Avengers: Infinity War

I don’t know what to say. Really. There’s little to say, without giving too much away. So here’s the spoiler-free gist: The Avengers – and their superhero allies from across the Marvel Cinematic Universe – engage in what may be their deadliest showdown of all time. Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Spider-man, Captain America, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, and others too, join forces with the Guardians of the Galaxy (Star-Lord, Gemora, Groot, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, etc.) to defeat a mighty alien named Thanos who aims to eliminate half the universe. Thanos’s misguided plan for population control rests on his ability to collect all six brightly-colored “Infinity Stones” that can manipulate elements of time, space, reality, power, the mind, and the soul. If Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeds – all hell breaks loose, and a lot of people die. In other words, the stakes are higher than high for this epic action adventure sci-fi fantasy flick.

Avengers, assemble! And bring reinforcements! Victory is not guaranteed.

Doctor Strange

Fanboys and Fangirls will certainly make an appointment to see Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and they won’t be disappointed. The superhero movie du jour features a character I was completely unfamiliar with, but it turns out he’s a rather engaging bloke, in an ‘Avengers meets the mystical world’ sort of way. I still love my Avengers more (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor…), but Doctor Strange is a solid, entertaining action-adventure sci-fi fantasy, especially for fans of the Marvel universe, where bad stuff happens and the heroes win out, without all the intense violence, darkness, and brooding that has come to characterize the DC Comics’ caped crusaders (Superman, Batman, etc.).

Black Mass

There’s really only one reason to see Black Mass – and that is the performance of Johnny Depp as south Boston’s notorious Irish mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger. Depp has been hit or miss (okay, maybe just miss) in recent years, so it’s nice to see him in something that doesn’t suck, in a role that could very well get him an Oscar nomination. Black Mass isn’t a great movie – in fact, as a crime drama based on a rather fascinating true story, it’s not very dramatic or entertaining. But it does have some killer moments (pun intended) and solid performances by a supporting cast that includes: Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly, a childhood friend who protects Bulger by claiming him as an informant against the bigger, badder Italian Mafia; Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy, a powerful Massachusetts state senator who seems to be in constant denial of Whitey’s dark side; and Dakota Johnson (50 Shades) as Whitey’s girlfriend and mother of his child. Her role is small but she definitely makes the most of it.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is a film based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free middle class black musician who lived in upstate New York in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is the nightmare tale of his abduction and sale into slavery, and his 12-year fight to survive and rejoin his family. The film is filled with ugly brutality and Northup, who is forced by the slave traders to go by another name, is systematically dehumanized and has to hide his true educated self, since that could mean a death sentence for him. A lot of it is hard to watch, but the violence is integral to the story, and it is definitely graphic but never gratuitous.