November 27, 2016

On 'Moonlight' and 'Spotlight': Two of the decade's best films reveal something deeper in light of each other.

Last year, Spotlight emerged as one of the great films of 2015 and of the decade, the All the President’s Men of our time. Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe reporters investigating sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the Boston archdiocese. Their investigation led to the exposure of not one, but hundreds of American priests who raped children over the last fifty years, and whose deeds were repeatedly covered up by Church leaders. Spotlight is a great movie because it tells a big, urgent story with specificity, clarity, and conviction. Moonlight, which may be the best film of 2016, tells us a small but no less moving story with as much specificity and clarity and conviction and is, I think, a great film too. And while these movies have tangential connections—both of them deal with children, one way or another, being abused or neglected—it’s in their ability to unearth beauty and truth in the face of lies and sheer ugliness that these films emerge as great, moving, powerful, important works of art, movies that deserve to be remembered in the years to come. 

Moonlight, the second feature film of writer-director Barry Jenkins, is a film about identity that speaks with particularity, and therefore, uncovers something universal: The people and circumstances in our lives shape us for better or worse into the people we become, and the most tragic thing about life is the hope that almost materializes but is snuffed out like a spark under a heavy foot. And yet, Moonlight wages a fierce hope for its main character, a man struggling with his identity and his sexuality, a man whose childhood sears him with an eternal silence, because speaking up isn’t in the cards.

When I walked out of the theater last week, I felt elated, completely lifted out of myself and into the world of this movie. It’s a hard world, riddled with tragedies big and small, but Jenkins unearths a great deal of beauty too. When we first meet Chiron, a young black boy growing up in the Miami hood, he’s running from bullies who keep making fun of him for being gay, a word he doesn’t yet understand at the age of seven. But Chiron doesn’t only run from mean kids at school; he runs from home too. Chiron’s mother Paula (the marvelous Naomie Harris) is addicted to drugs, and thus totally unpredictable. Sometimes she’s loving and sympathetic, and other times, when she’s strung out on crack, she turns into a screaming, ranting lunatic, and Chiron never knows which version of his mom he will meet when he crosses the threshold of their apartment. 

The film traces Chiron’s journey from childhood to manhood, and is thus divided into three parts, with three different actors playing Chiron: Alex Hibbert as “Little” (Chiron at 7 or 8), Ashton Sanders as just Chiron, age 16-17, and Trevante Rhodes as “Black,” a grown-up Chiron who’s become harder and more guarded after a childhood of questioning and struggle and disappointment, but who’s offered a moment of grace in the rekindling of a relationship with Kevin (played as an adult by Andre Holland), a childhood friend who one day betrays him. 

One of those disappointments is the feeling of betrayal Chiron experiences when he discovers that Juan, his father figure (played by Mahershala Ali) sells drugs for a living. Juan is tender and compassionate, not the qualities we imagine when we think of drug dealers, but Jenkins pushes that conflict to the forefront of the movie: When Juan discovers Paula smoking crack with some unknown male friend, he scolds her for being an irresponsible mother, but she throws his hypocrisy right in his face, and screams at him, “Are you gonna raise my son?”, her voice defensive and defiant and desperate all at once. 

And yet Juan is compassionate. It’s clear to everyone that “Little” (Chiron) is gay, but Chiron doesn’t understand his sexuality, nor is he equipped to deal with the cruel jeers and torments of the schoolyard. “What’s a faggot?” 7-year-old Chiron asks Juan, his face long with shame and ignorance. Juan pauses before answering: “It’s a word used to make gay people feel bad about themselves.” The tragedy of Moonlight is that this important relationship is compromised and ultimately short-lived. Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, and in a perfect world, Juan could teach Chiron how to live, how to be a man, how to be secure in his own skin. But Chiron cannot reconcile the fact that Juan sells drugs, that he is symbolically if not literally connected to his mother’s drug addiction. 

Spotlight asks us to look honestly at the institutions we hold dear; it never asks us to give them up, only to be honest, to seek justice. Moonlight asks us to merely look as it unfolds a particular story for us, of a particular boy’s life, and one that viewers like me have likely not seen enough of in movies or in real life. True, these films are about two different things. Chiron isn’t sexually abused by priests; but he is a young poor black boy, someone who’s liable to be abused in other ways if not sexually, someone who’s liable to become a statistic in the same way that thousands of children were mere statistics to the leaders in the Roman Church. So ultimately, they’re about the same thing: the ways that power affects people at the most basic levels. Spotlight gives us the devastating numbers, and it puts the hammer in the hands of people who, confronted with the truth, must act according to conscience or remain complicit; Moonlight is the poem that breathes vitality into the statistics and the facts. We may not walk away seeing the connection between these two films, but inevitably, the connection is there to be found: Society cannot look itself in the mirror without asking if it’s done right by the “least" among us, the kids so often forgotten.

What is all the more beautiful about Moonlight is its humanity. In the end, Chiron isn’t a statistic, or a tragedy, or a lesson about society’s ills. He’s a man, with a beating heart, with a destiny, with faults and little tragedies of his own, tragedies he must bear and overcome, and with desires he must learn to live with, confront, and lean into.

With Janelle Monae, as Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend and the only stable mother Chiron has ever had. Music by Nicholas Britell.

November 23, 2016

Can we stop telling stories about Howard Hughes now?

What is so fascinating about Howard Hughes that he deserves so many movies about his life? On the surface, Hughes did lead an interesting life. He was a zillionaire, a movie mogul, a daredevil in an airplane, a real ladies’ man (he was an epically bad boyfriend to many a Hollywood star) and a complete eccentric: all the ingredients required for a typical American “character”, and we sure do love “characters”. But every time someone makes another movie about Howard Hughes, the result is insufferably dull and uninspired (Scorsese’s The Aviator). And now Warren Beatty has ventured into Hughes territory with Rules Don’t Apply, which Beatty wrote, directed and stars in, as the aging eccentric himself. The film takes place mostly in 1959, with Hughes in his prolonged mental illness phase, except that he was still trying to achieve new levels of greatness as a filmmaker and an aviator and a tycoon.

Howard Hughes, like all the other memorable characters to come out of Hollywood’s golden era, is the closest thing to royalty we have: an heir to oil like a British monarch is an heir to royal blood. But there’s no lack of obtuse valentines to old rich white men in this country, and Rules Don’t Apply doesn’t break any new ground in its quest to understand, or mock, or merely exhibit, Hughes’s eccentric life. Warren Beatty, who did excellent work in films like Shampoo (1975), made a common mistake of many an actor-turned-director (starting with Reds in 1981): he turned to “important” material (in the case of Reds, the Russian Revolution) as a way to elevate his filmmaking, forgetting that much of the best American filmmaking of the 1970s eschewed the effrontery of prestige. Rules Don’t Apply makes a similar error, refusing to contain its man-obsession with Howard Hughes, who was essentially a real-life Jay Gatsby, the kind of man we’ve been trained to idolize: self-made and rich and eccentric, yet not really self-made, because in Jay Gatsby’s case, he resorted to organized crime to earn his millions, and in Hughes’s case, he inherited his first big swath of cash (just like our new President). 

As a film, Rules Don’t Apply is beautifully made, and every costume, every prop, every wall, seems to have been designed with care and precision. But it's also frustratingly uneven. Hughes was known for being stubborn, unpredictable, and erratic. The movie’s tone and rhythm somehow internalize these Hughesian qualities, and as a result, we never feel confident or secure in the narrative that Beatty is trying to tell. Movies should be unpredictable, but they shouldn’t feel so shaky that we question the very competency of the storytelling, as though the movie itself is Howard Hughes, and we’re Frank, the dutiful assistant played by Alden Ehrenreich, who incidentally gives the film’s best performance. Ehrenreich has star appeal: a pleading look in his eyes and a sense of daring-do beneath that handsome face, like he could easily turn into a rascal or a hood if called upon. (He’s been cast to play a young Han Solo in some new Star Wars offshoot.) 

The plot involves Hughes’s coterie of starlets, impressionable would-be actresses he’s set up in Hollywood bungalows with a salary of $400 a week and a driver at their beck and call, not to mention vague promises of a screen test. The main starlet in question is named Marla Mabrey (played by Lily Collins), a stuffy fundamentalist girl from Virginia, who doesn’t drink. Collins gives an earnest performance, but she never satisfies in this movie about stars, because Marla isn’t really star material. Indeed, Marla displays refreshing honesty about her prospects as a movie star. At one point she says something to the effect of: “I can’t sing that well, I don’t have big bosoms, and I think too much. I know how this business works, and that’s not what they’re looking for.” At least she’s self-aware, and the choices Marla makes leave her with her dignity mostly intact. And, star or no star, Marla does catch the eye of Frank, her driver, but their budding romance is complicated by Hughes’s draconian rules: his girls aren’t supposed to engage in any extracurricular activities with Hughes’s employees. (Their love story is, finally, the most compelling thing about Rules Don't Apply; it's the thing that keeps us watching.)

As Hughes, Beatty gives an impressive performance, but even that is marred by the film’s tonal incongruities. We never know if Beatty’s adoration for Hughes is totally sincere, or tongue-in-cheek. He’s certainly nowhere near the dark, critically poetic level of Orson Welles, depicting the empty, selfish life of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane. And after multiple scenes where the camera closes in on a dimly lit shot of Hughes crying about his daddy, viewers may decide they’ve had enough of Hughes, even if the relics of Hollywood haven’t.

With Candice Bergen, reduced to playing a secretary and given nothing interesting to do or say; Anette Bening as Marla’s paranoid, fanatical mother; Matthew Broderick, as one of Hughes’s yes men, who has an amusing outburst after he’s taken all he can take from his boss; and featuring brief appearances by Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris, Paul Schneider, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Amy Madigan, Oliver Platt, and Hart Bochner. 

November 20, 2016

"The Edge of Seventeen" will ring true at 17, and 37, and probably 107.

Movies like The Breakfast Club resonate with us when we’re young because they validate our emotions without even a hint of criticism or irony. But when we look back on these films as adults, we may find they no longer speak to us in the same way: the problems that seemed large and insurmountable at 16—distant or demanding parents, alienation from peers, confusion about our identities—may have faded into the background of our lives (or maybe not); and while those problems mattered and do matter, their teeth aren’t as sharp as they used to be, or we’ve grown tougher and more resilient, and gained some valuable perspective, with age. The Edge of Seventeen, a new comedy-drama about teen angst, written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, succeeds marvelously at sympathizing with its main character, the unhappy high school girl Nadine (played by Hailee Steinfeld), without pandering to young people. It’s clear from the beginning that while Nadine’s problems are real and difficult, she isn’t the center of the universe, and, by extension, nor are the young viewers who might find in The Edge of Seventeen their own version of The Breakfast Club. Part of Nadine’s emotional journey, in fact, is recognizing that it’s not all about her.

The heart of the story involves the giant rift between Nadine and her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who unexpectedly falls in love with Nadine’s charming, seemingly perfect older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Nadine only has one friend, and all the important high school gods—of good looks, of popularity, of Straight A’s, of athletics—have smiled on Darian, and half-heartedly smirked in Nadine’s direction. She’s got her personality—which is funny and intelligent when she’s not terribly self-conscious, which is almost never—and her humor, which tends to irritate rather than amuse. Nadine is also dealing with the unexpected death of her dad, and the subsequently strained relationship with her mom (Kyra Sedgwick), who relies too much on Darian now that her husband is gone. 

Steinfeld, whom readers probably remember as the fiery, determined young heroine of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit (2010), gives a funny, big, yet controlled performance. Nadine is by turns irritating, gauche, impulsive, and ultimately, lovable. She also cannot control the things that come tumbling out of her mouth. In multiple scenes, Nadine chides herself for her awkward behavior, and screams at herself, “Why do you say these things?” Those of us who, like Nadine, weren’t coasting on our good looks in high school (although Hailee Steinfeld is certainly a lovely young woman), can probably relate to this. We had to work at developing our personalities, and anytime we spoke, it was like we were taking our driving tests without any practice. The art of saying the right thing at the right time takes a lot of work for most of us, and before we perfect it, we’re all falling flat on our faces most of the time. (Now of course, these moments of verbal awkwardness are seared into the permanent record of social media and Youtube.)

Woody Harrelson gives another of the film’s standout performances, playing Nadine’s history teacher Mr. Bruner. During lunchtime, Nadine frequently sits in his classroom and dumps all her problems on him while he tries to savor his 30 minutes of peace. The teacher obviously cares about Nadine, but he often responds to her woe-is-me attitude with smart-ass quips. When she shows him an explicit text message she accidentally sent a boy on whom she has a crush, Bruner reads it aloud and then chides her for using run-on sentences. Their relationship is a prickly one, a kind of love-hate tennis match, and one more unexpected delight in a movie that repeatedly goes against the conventions of teen movies.

Sometimes, I think about what Ally Sheedy says in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up, your heart dies,” and I feel that John Hughes cashed in on a huge lie: that life peaks during adolescence, and that the big emotions we experience in high school have to define us. Our hearts don’t die just because we become more able to deal with problems, and the things we said and did and experienced in high school do not have to define us. Kelly Fremon Craig understands this, and, perhaps that is why she doesn’t reduce the teenagers and parents in her film to good guys and bad guys; nor does she reduce young people to stereotypes. And while I still love all those 80s teen comedies because they’re my nostalgia, I’m not sure I would have loved them if I’d seen them as an adult when they first premiered. The Edge of Seventeen is sharp enough and honest enough to appeal to both a teenager and a grown-up, and while it may mean something different to the 17-year-old girl who falls in love with it and the 37-year-old woman she becomes, I think it will always ring true.

Note: I'd be remiss without citing the performance of Hayden Szeto, who plays Nadine’s friend Erwin, a budding young filmmaker. (The short film he makes is absolutely delightful.) Erwin is just as awkward as Nadine, and the friendship—and romance—that develops between them feels real and lasting.  

November 12, 2016

'Arrival' emerges as a great science fiction movie, and it comes just in time.

Arrival, a new alien-encounter drama starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, could not have arrived at a better moment. As the nation both writhes in despairing agony and luxuriates in triumphant glee (depending on your politics), Arrival, which unsentimentally champions global unity, offers a balm, a glimmer of light in the morass of darkness and ugliness that has hovered over the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. In the film, Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who lives in Seattle (or what appears to be Seattle). One day she walks into her classroom and begins a lecture on Portuguese, despite a surprisingly low turnout of students, but is interrupted by frantic news reports of an alien invasion: Twelve “spaceships” have landed in various parts of the world, the nearest one somewhere in Montana. 

But these aren’t the spaceships of War of the Worlds or any schlocky 1950s sci-fi classic. They’re enormous, monolithic, Stonehengey shell-like vessels that silently, stoically hover over the ground. As the military might of various empires reacts with knee-jerk panic and paranoia, Louise becomes a pawn in the U.S. government’s attempt to communicate with our visitors. (Forest Whitaker shows up as a grim but sympathetic colonel, trying to appease his superiors but also trying to listen to Louise’s theories about how to communicate with these alien beings.)

But these tall, grey aliens, which stand on four rail-thin legs and have long, tendril-like tentacles on their heads, use a language no one understands, and Louise, who teams up with a scientist named Ian (played by Jeremy Renner), must slowly figure out a few words and teach them some of her own. Meanwhile, various other world powers scramble to do the same, and become increasingly afraid when they do begin to understand the language of these other-worldly creatures.

Arrival opens with a  gloomy shot of Louise’s living room, perhaps at dusk, because we see two wine glasses and a half-empty bottle on a little table in the corner. Her house overlooks what appears to be the Puget Sound, and the shot is remarkably silent, until the music—an elegy of sustained strings—ushers in feelings of sadness we do not yet understand. 

The movie ends in that room too, yet now the image swells with meaning because of what’s happened in between. And everything that happens in Arrival feels right, nearly flawless, from the images of the humans making contact, to the global tension that builds as widespread fear takes hold. Arrival emerges as a great science fiction movie: a big, smart, mass appeal kind of film that succeeds marvelously as a genre piece, as a meditation on life and death and time and the nature of language, and as a movie that plays with time in surprising ways. 

The director, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and the scenarist, Eric Heisserer, don’t use time manipulation as a gimmick. Rather, they question the nature of time and how we understand it, without getting bogged down in overcomplicated language. Arrival is more poetry than theory. The movie builds toward something powerful, inevitable, and shattering: that’s the kind of grand emotion, which comes from the careful accumulation of smaller, subtler emotions, that we should expect from and delight in particularly from major films. 

Perhaps Arrival will be too slow-moving and thoughtful for some who might be expecting a more action-packed movie. But Arrival isn’t Independence Day. This is not a movie about malicious creatures from outer space: it’s a movie about the malicious pervasiveness of bad information, and how assumptions and breakdowns in communication not only paralyze us, but pit us against one another, often with grave consequences. This is The Day the Earth Stood Still for the 21st century, but it’s also Solaris (1972), Tarkovsky’s pensive, somnambulant masterpiece about space and time and death. 

Like the scientist Kris in Solaris, who has lost his wife but keeps seeing her on the spacecraft, Louise is haunted by tragedy too: the death of her daughter. We see mother and daughter in flashback, shards of a happier life that we know is doomed: them playing in the backyard, wading in a pond, the little girl doing her homework, the little girl becoming a teenager and wondering about why her parents split, the teenager receiving a shattering diagnosis, and then, the agony of the hospital bed, and Louise bending over her daughter’s lifeless body in despair. 

Amy Adams immediately draws us in as someone who’s suffered the kind of loss you don’t really get over. And unlike the Sandra Bullock-vehicle Gravity, which was a sumptuous but indulgently sappy entertainment, Arrival doesn’t withhold this dead-child information to be used against us later. Louise’s loss is known to us virtually from the start, and while it certainly shapes her character, it is not a plot device on which the emotional beats of the movie hang. Nevertheless, as Louise throws herself into her daunting linguistic project, the recollections of her child keep breaking through, sometimes in dreams that are increasingly affected by her interactions with the aliens, whom Ian has nicknamed Abbot and Costello. 

Some science fiction movies grasp for greatness and, against all odds, become masterpieces (like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is simultaneously pretentious and brilliant). Others fail, like Interstellar, which is an expertly made but overblown film, one that tries very, very hard. When we can feel the effort, and when the results are so earnest yet incomprehensible, our reaction (or mine at least) is to pull away. Even at its most ponderous moments, a movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind reaches into us and pulls us out of ourselves. 

That’s the work that great science fiction can do, and Arrival indeed makes that kind of personal contact with its viewers. We are breathlessly pulled into the story; we delight in the ways this movie surprises us; we feel the emotions as palpably as if the stories were our own. And in the darkened theater, this story belongs to us.

November 09, 2016

Indie dark comedy 'Little Sister' features terrific performances from Ally Sheedy and newcomer Addison Timlin

In Little Sister, an endearing dark comedy written and directed by Zach Clark, Addison Timlin plays Colleen Lunsford, a 20-ish girl who lives at a convent in Brooklyn, where she’s preparing to take her vows and become a full-fledged nun. Colleen unexpectedly finds herself drawn back to her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, where her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) has just returned from Iraq, after suffering a severe injury that left his entire face permanently disfigured. 

The movie takes place in October 2008, and the drama of the presidential election between Obama and McCain foregrounds the comparatively small-scale, yet no-less urgent, drama of Colleen’s family. Colleen’s mother, Joani (played by the wonderful Ally Sheedy), struggles with depression (which fueled a suicide attempt a few years before); Joani never completely explodes, but Sheedy’s performance is so fine-tuned that we get the queasy feeling she could erupt at any minute, and that life with Joani is a constant dance through a minefield. Colleen’s dad, Bill (Peter Hedges), is simply trying to keep the peace; he doesn't know what to do to change things, so he focuses on avoiding conflict as much as possible. (When Colleen says something to set her mother off, Bill silently signals Colleen to please quit, a pantomime of meek desperation.)

Meanwhile there’s Tricia (Kristin Slaysman), Jacob’s wife, a beautiful young woman who’s found herself in a tough situation, living with the parents of a husband who no longer resembles the man she married. (And it’s not the injuries I refer to, but the personality shift, the emotional disconnect, that hovers over Jacob like a dark cloud.) What’s more, Jacob has seemingly lost interest in Tricia; it’s as if he cannot imagine anyone finding him desirable anymore, so he too feels nothing but disgust for himself. (This is unfair to Tricia, who tries to spice up their fledgling marriage with sexy lingerie; later, we see her surfing a singles’ dating website: more desperation.) 

Little Sister explores the ways family members radically change—or, in some cases, radically remain the same. Colleen’s conversion to Catholicism seems genuine, yet she wavers when confronted with memories of her old life: her bedroom, preserved like a museum to her goth-metal teenage years, still bears all the posters and clothes and the upside down cross, and there’s still a tube of Colleen’s trusty black lipstick in a drawer. When she can’t get an audience with Jacob, Colleen dons her old look, and lip syncs to the song “Have You Seen Me” by Gwar, a song that was once very special to them in its angry, clever, satirical anarchy. Jacob, who’s been hollowed out by the war, needs the old Colleen to bring him back to life. Indeed, Colleen is the catalyst for this family’s particular form of redemption. It’s no Hollywood form of redemption—there are still shards of hurt and anger and waves of dysfunction running through this unit—but in Little Sister, what matters is the little bits of the broken that we find, and what we do with them in the name of re-building.

Little Sister probably errors on the side of being too hip and cool, like many independent movies. It has that homegrown, quaint feeling that only hipsters can provide so masterfully, but there’s a heart beating inside this movie too, and the performances of Timlin and Sheedy (and the marvelous Barbara Crampton, who gets too little screen time as Colleen’s supportive but frustrated Mother Superior back in New York) are reason enough to see this film. 

November 07, 2016

'Doctor Strange': In which--SPOILER-- I actually liked a comic book movie.

In Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, an arrogant neurosurgeon who cares more about money and prestige than the hippocratic oath. When we first meet Dr. Strange, he’s in the operating room showcasing his knowledge of music trivia while he cavalierly cuts into a patient. Strange’s arrogance stems from the fact that he’s the best of his kind, and thus, he’s earned the right to be a prick. Later, we see him skillfully remove a bullet from the skull of another patient, and it’s a genuinely breathless moment, yet there’s no humanity behind Strange’s almost miraculous skill as a healer. But Strange’s arrogance gets the better of him when he’s severely injured in a car accident (from reckless driving) that threatens to permanently end his career as a surgeon. Then he goes on a quest for healing, to Nepal, where he meets a group of mystics that believe in the power of the mind to overcome the limits of the body. 

Even though Doctor Strange doesn’t break any new ground as a comic book movie, it does succeed in refreshing the old beats we’ve come to expect from them. What are some of the worst things about comic book movies? A tendency toward expositional dialogue, and consequently a lack of visual storytelling; an indulgent, mindless approach to violence and conflict; a debilitating reliance on heavy-handed themes about good and evil, which have been recycled until they’ve worn thin; and a need to raise the stakes as high as they can be raised (the world will end if “X” doesn’t save it), until the stakes no longer matter. Doctor Strange minimizes most of these flaws, and at times even subverts them. 

The film’s sense of humor goes a long way toward this, even if some of the jokes feel a bit lame. Example of a lame joke: When Mordo (one of the mystics, played with charisma by Chiwetel Ejiofor) hands Dr. Strange a card with the word “shamballa” written on it, and explains to a befuddled Strange that it’s the Wifi password. “We’re not savages,” he quips, with a silly grin on his face. But there are other moments of levity that are charming, that truly do lighten the mood. There’s a magical cape, for instance, that takes on a personality of its own, like something out of Harry Potter; or the banter between Strange and Benedict Wong’s character, the taciturn guardian of the library, who never smiles. For a film that focuses so much on big questions about existence and reality, Dr. Strange seldom feels heavy-handed.

Indeed, Doctor Strange actually evokes a sense of wonder about the world and the universe (and the multiverse), a feat I’d long given up hoping for in comic book movies. Strange often clumsily answers its questions with handy bumper-sticker-adages like, “Death is what gives life meaning,” but the fact that it ponders such questions, and the fact that director Scott Derrickson has the restraint to let even some of those questions linger (handy bromides aside), says a lot about his maturity as a filmmaker. Doctor Strange, with all its depictions of matter being bent and manipulated by mental energy and time being looped, recalls Christopher Nolan’s films Inception and Interstellar, but unlike Nolan, Scott Derrickson is content to marvel at the mysteries, where Nolan delights in creating puzzles we can’t solve. 

Derrickson, who co-scripted with Jon Spaiht and C. Robert Cargill (his collaborator on the Sinister films), has always demonstrated a strong interest in the supernatural and in the workings of the metaphysical. His first feature was 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a combination horror movie-courtroom drama that was part The Exorcist and part Inherit the Wind. Emily Rose is an effective horror movie, even if it masquerades (barely) as propaganda for the Catholic Church. (Laura Linney must defend a priest accused of neglecting an alleged possessed girl, and she bases her closing arguments on the possibility of a supernatural realm: belief in things not seen.) And yet, even Emily Rose at times betrayed a certain lucid thinking (except when it was being sensationalistic). But Derrickson was a little more obvious about his religion then; a decade later, he’s perhaps less sure of himself, or perhaps his own views have simply gotten mixed into a much bigger Marvel-sized soup of beliefs.

We get the feeling that Doctor Strange is promulgating some kind of religious dogma, but its views on all things metaphysical feel more elemental: “Humanity longs for the eternal,” and “time is an insult” says the film’s chief villain, Kaecilius, played by Mads Mikkelsen (the eye-patch-wearing heavy in Casino Royale); Tilda Swinton, playing a powerful mystic referred to as the “Ancient One,” talks of “harnessing energy” and “making magic,” and Doctor Strange goes on a quest for physical healing using metaphysical means. That Doctor Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon who must unlearn all his reliance on the laws of nature, in order to cultivate mystical powers, is a fairly obvious lesson. It's all sort of lingering in the air, incoherently, and thus the film falls somewhere in the middle, emphasizing a “both-and” approach to the ideas of rationality and belief. Doctor Strange embraces pluralism, perhaps without trying to, and feels far less preachy than even something like Superman, which champions ideas about patriotism and capitalism—not to mention the idea of the ubermenschfar more dogmatically. 

Derrickson also has a feel for actors: Whenever possible, he lets them build the tension in a scene—not special effects, nor clunky expositional dialogue. Benedict Cumberbatch, who has such a commanding presence, has chemistry with Rachel McAdams, playing his colleague, Christine Palmer, who’s in love with him. But when she’s had enough of his self-centeredness, Christine threatens to end the relationship, and Strange retorts with something to the effect of, “you weren’t worth my time anyway.” It’s a jaw-dropping moment, one that elicited jeers from the audience, but McAdams gets a triumphant moment out of it: She walks away having rejected even his callousness, and isn’t about to be defined by what some arrogant jerk says about her. In later scenes, McAdams isn’t reduced to being the drag stock female character. (Although her role does diminish.) She’s forced at one point in the movie to save Strange from the brink of death, even while his soul—having temporarily left its body—battles with the soul of Kaecilius. 

The fight scenes smack of familiarity, just like in every comic book movie, but Doctor Strange overcomes most of them too. (For one thing, they aren't as drawn out, and Doctor clocks in at under two hours because of it. Bless you, Scott Derrickson.) And the big showdown, which pits Strange against some super-evil-dark-force-spirit-thing, has a lovely, funny kick to it: Strange wins by using the concept of “looping,” repeating the same sequence indefinitely, until he irritates the thing into submission. (It's just like in Groundhog Day.) Perhaps this scene serves as a bigger comment on the mindless repetition that comic book movies foist on us, exhausting viewers into submission. It's amazing how grateful we can be when one of these movies actually surprises us.