Spider-Man: Homecoming review

Peter Parker sure has been through a lot. Since Sam Raimi’s original 2002 take on the character known to the world as Spider-Man, the wall crawler has survived two sequels and a failed two-film franchise reboot. Now, as an official part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the third take on the character in 15 years arrives on the big screen. Originally introduced in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, this version of the hero, played by Tom Holland, is a young, inexperienced fanboy, one who doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure. Holland’s cameo was a highlight, but can this new version of Spidey anchor his own film, especially since audiences seem to have grown so weary of his antics?

I’m happy to say that the answer is a big “yes.” In the competent hands of Marvel Studios, this Spidey manages to be fresh and fun, and offers a different take on the character that is compelling in its own right without copying what has come before.

One of the smartest decisions director Jon Watts and his cavalcade of writers made when re-booting this property yet again was to avoid another origin story. We’ve seen that already. Twice. It’s old, and every time a new superhero is introduced, we’re forced to weather the same old clichés, though often in very different clothing. This film, however, takes place right where Civil War left off, seeing 15-year-old Parker geeking out after returning home from that film’s epic brawl (we revisit some of this through Parker’s adorable home videos). Recruited to the battle by Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Parker is now placed under the care of Happy Hogan (an always great Jon Favreau), and left with a high-tech Spidey suit. Parker returns home to his surprisingly hot Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to await his next big mission.

Alas, such a mission appears to be nowhere in sight. Peter waits for month for a call that may never come, and he has difficulty adjusting to the life of a normal high schooler after such a high (homecoming dances and Academic Decathlon tournaments don’t seem so exciting when you’ve met Captain America). Then there’s the normal teen problems, such as putting up with bullies like Flash (Tony Revolori) and nursing a crush on brainy-but-beautiful Liz (Laura Harrier).

But Peter’s alter-ego isn’t staying hidden. He’s out there being a friendly-neighborhood type of hero, busting car thieves and bank robbers alike. His humble story quickly changes, however, when he encounters dangerous explosive alien weaponry being sold on the black market. Thirsting for a truly heroic adventure, Spidey follows the breadcrumbs back to Adrien Toomes (Michael Keaton), a brilliant inventor and entrepreneur whose business took a major hit after his company was abruptly booted from the cleanup efforts of the original alien attack from The Avengers, a cosmic clash referred to as “the event.” He was shown the door by none other than The Avengers themselves, who founded their own clean-up crew in order to properly handle the foreign tech. Years later, Toomes is still holding a grudge, and taking matters (and dangerous technology) into his own hands, no matter who gets hurt along the way. Peter, with the help of his web-slinging prowess, cutting-edge suit and best friend Ned (a scene-stealing Jacob Batalon), hopes to get the guns off the streets and keep New York City safe.

Homecoming borrows as much from the John Hughes playbook as it does the world of comics, and this is a very good thing. The last thing we want is another self-serious, introspective do-gooder. This Spidey is light on his feet, fast and quippy, his voice almost cracking with pubescent, over-eager excitement. Peter is having fun, and we feel that joy of discovery, something the filmmakers smartly convey without resorting to training montages or flights of power-discovery fancy (we don’t see how Peter got his powers, no Uncle Ben or Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy). We get the emotions of an origin story while being treated to something new.

Homecoming is a great spider-Man film, giving us a fun and relatable version of the classic character.

Speaking of new, while Tom Holland may not be the best actor to ever sling a web cartridge, he is certainly the most appropriate. The 21-year-old actor looks like he could past for 15 (no one ever bought Tobey McGuire as a high schooler, right?), and he brings the youthful charm and awkwardness that helped define the early days of Spider-Man’s comic exploits. Our most relatable superhero is grounded here by a relatable and charming performer, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Holland takes the character in the future.

Holland is helped by the smart writing, which grounds Peter in real-world issues. This is no billionaire or alien from another planet. This is a kid, dealing with the angst and confusion of adolescence, forced into nigh-impossible circumstances. One of the most impactful lines in the film is uttered by Ned after Peter rails against Tony Stark for treating him like a kid. “But you are a kid,” Ned replies, something that’s easy to forget when Spidey’s acrobatic antics are in full swing. This is the kind of flick that dares to offer its hero a high tech super suit before the plot’s events force him to weather the climactic battle in his homemade crime fighting undies. A ballsy move, but it’s choices like this that help to make this screen version of Spidey the most relatable and likeable we’ve yet seen.

This is still a superhero movie though, and the action here doesn’t disappoint. There may not be as much of it as some fans hope for, but the set piece moments are uniquely thrilling. In particular, a bravura sequence set aboard a Staten Island Ferry will go down as one of the most exciting in any Spidey film to date. Holland is a trained dancer, and his finesse on the battlefield gives his hero an appropriate sense of speed and fluidity.

What really knocks this film up a notch, in my mind, is its humor. This isn’t necessarily a laugh-out-loud knee-slapper (not nearly at the level of Guardians of the Galaxy, anyways), but I loved getting to know these characters, their quirks and ticks and foibles. It’s gentle, amusing and tons of fun, and the most kid-friendly version of the property yet.

The film’s flaws mostly have to do with Marvel’s multi-film world-building. This is not really a stand-alone Spidey flick; much of its plot centers on events from previous Marvel films. If you’re a franchise fan, this is no trouble, but it’s a tad less approachable for people who just want to see a Spider-Man film. It’s not that intimidating, but it is worth noting. I suppose Keaton’s Toomes/Vulture isn’t quite as well-developed as I would have liked. Keaton is marvelous (and quite terrifying), a perfect casting choice, but his motivations aren’t probed with the depth and sensitivity given to many other characters. The same can be said for Aunt May, who doesn’t hold a candle to previous screen incarnations (Tomei barely even registers in this, sadly).

Marvel had to pack a lot into this re-booted Spidey story, and you can tell they’re thrilled to have him on the team (after Sony agreed to share the rights following their own somewhat disastrous re-boot starring Andrew Garfield). Not everything works, but for the most part the result is a rousing success. As a Spidey fan, I appreciated this light-hearted and unique approach to the character. Spider-Man: Homecoming lacks the operatic grandeur of Raimi’s original trilogy, but it’s closer in spirit to the comics. It’s a fast and fun thrill ride, and proof that the ol’ web-head still has a few surprises up his web cartridge.

Baby Driver review

It’s hard to find a truly original action movie these days. The vast majority are some sort of variation on Rambo or The Fugitive. Like songs featuring the word “baby,” they all tend to start feeling the same. But, every so often, the world of cinema is blessed with a truly original and refreshing action voice. Think of Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, The Wachowskis’ The Matrix or Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive.

Add to that list writer/director Edgar Wright, who apparently didn’t get the memo when it comes to the action movie playbook. The British filmmaker has spent his career crafting wildly original and completely delightful comedy-action combos like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. His films often combine action thrills, quirky laughs and even some profound cultural commentary.

Wright’s first film in four years, Baby Driver easily overcomes its odd title by exuding Wright’s patented blend of nerdy-cool. It’s also, in all the ways that count, his most accomplished film to date, blending jaw-dropping car stunts with an infectious soundtrack, whip-smart dialogue and memorable characters.

The titular driver is one Baby (Ansel Elgort, never better), a charming street rat and music junkie who frequently indulges his penchant for fast cars. When he is caught red-handed by Doc (Kevin Spacey) during one of his escapades, he is compelled to work for Doc to pay off his debt. Unfortunately, Doc’s line of work is of the…less than legal variety. Specifically, he is the mastermind behind a series of bank heists. Nonetheless, he takes Baby under his wing, and is soon a sort of father figure to the young rascal, who, as a child, lost his parents in a car accident and suffers a hearing disorder as a result of the crash (music drowns out the humming, apparently, so Baby just keeps his earbuds in at all times).

When we meet Baby in the film, he is one score away from settling his debt with Doc and wining his freedom. But his deaf adoptive father (CJ Jones) fears for his safety, and Baby is forced to keep new love interest, Debora (Lily James) in the dark about his shady associations.

Doc employs a variety of experienced thugs to pull off these increasingly ambitious heists, including Griff (Jon Bernthal), Darling (Eliza Gonzalez), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and the murderously unhinged Bats (Jaime Foxx). But none is more important that the getaway driver. Behind the wheel, Baby is in his element, a combination of Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and Vin Diesel’s Dom. He pulls off his final heist in spectacular fashion, but will Doc really let his number one driver off so easy? And will the kind-hearted Baby be able to stomach Bats’ increasingly risky acts of extreme violence? He dreams of riding off into the sunset with Debora, no destination in mind, but Baby soon finds that reality is a bit messier than his sepia-toned reveries.

Baby Driver is a wildly original and completely successful action-comedy.

The thing that immediately draws you into Baby Driver’s world is just how cool it is. Effortlessly so. It feels like Wright and company barely even tried. Considering how many action flicks try and fail to be “hip,” that is no small feat. The film owes its vibe, largely, to the soundtrack. This is the kind of flick that wouldn’t be possible without its music. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie uses every opportunity to let music do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Even more so than Galaxy, it integrates the music into the story in ways both big and small. Obviously, thanks to Baby’s hearing condition, music plays a huge part in how he views the world. This dude is frankly obsessed. Who else would create mixtapes based on samplings of random conversations he has throughout the day? Who else would, after a successful heist, refuse to drive away until the song playing hits the right section?

Baby’s musical obsession also transfers over to the film’s visual style. Several scenes would feel at home in a musical, as machine guns pop to the beat during an intense shootout, or stacks of cash hit a table with rhythmic precision. It’s an editing technique unlike any I’ve ever seen, and Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss should be given major kudos (and an Oscar) for their pioneering work.

The tunes themselves are fantastic, ranging from retro R&B to the current indie scene. Baby’s tastes are eclectic, and so are Wright’s. It’s always fun to see a filmmaker geeking out about something they have passion for, and Wright is clearly the music junkie to end all music junkies.

Sure, the film has style to spare, but thankfully everything else in the film is equally impressive. These are, simply, some of the finest car chases ever put on film, and they’re only heightened by the kinetic energy of the soundtrack and energy. Seeing a sports car drive up a multi-level parking garage backwards at high speed is one for the books.

Wright also assembled an enviable cast, and everyone here is fantastic. I especially loves seeing Jon Hamm’s suave criminal turn into an unhinged psycho, but Jamie Foxx’s one-note, over-the-top baddie is also entertaining. But Elgort is the true star, and here he shows he can be a truly engaging actor. I wasn’t much of a fan of his previous work, but maybe he just needed the right project to allow him to shine.

Baby Driver is a fire-on-all-cylinders thrill ride. Much like Wright’s previous films, it can be hard to recognize what a brilliant piece of craftsmanship it is when you’re having so much fun watching it. But brilliant it is. For a good chunk of the film, I was disappointed that the film didn’t feel like a signature Wright flick, but when the last third kicks in, we’re treated to the insane, balls-to-the-wall chaos we expect him to deliver.

There’s no use pretending that Baby Driver has much of a rich subtext or deep social commentary. It’s a fairly simple but engaging story told with no small amount of style. But there’s something to be said about a pure genre flick made with this much passion and artistry. This was clearly a labor of love, and it shows in every frame. From beginning to end, Baby Driver ranks with Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the finest action films of recent years. Don’t miss it.

Wonder Woman review

It’s hard to imagine why it took more than 70 years to get a Wonder Woman movie made. Certainly one of our most iconic superheroes, the Amazonian warrior known as Diana is essentially DC Comics’ female counterpart to Marvels’ Captain America. She’s patriotic, savagely intelligent and fiercely committed to the values of justice, dignity and peace. She’s also no slouch when it comes to kicking bad guy booty.

After the utter failure of female-centric superhero adaptations like Electra and Catwoman, comic fans would be forgiven for thinking that all hope of seeing Diana on the big screen was lost. But then, Marvel came with its rich female ensemble heroes like Black Widow and Gamora, and Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame ruled the box office for years.

But DC Entertainment’s road to Wonder Woman was not a smooth one. Fans began to lose hope after a series of disappointing films that betrayed basic tenets of beloved characters. Superman kills now. Batman is a gun-toting vigilante. I, along with many fans, feared that Diana would be betrayed in a similar way. No brooding, tortured Wonder Woman for me, thanks.

I’m so glad my fears were unfounded. Wonder Woman is, simply, a wonder, filled with breathtaking visuals, thought-provoking themes and a sense of fun and gravitas missing entirely from recent DC fare. Any way you slice it, this summer blockbuster is a home run.

The film takes place against the backdrop of Greek mythology, where Ares, the god of war, slaughtered the other gods in an attempt to take the throne. But Zeus defeated Ares, leaving his ultimate fate unknown. As the story goes, Zeus made man in his perfect image, but Ares corrupted the creation, turning men against each other and fostering hatred and fear. A tribe of Amazon women, living on a secluded island, was tasked by Zeus with standing at the ready in case of Ares’ return.

Into this story comes Diana (Gal Gadot), carved from clay by her mother and breathed to life by Zeus himself, or so the story goes. From a young age, Diana longs to wield the god-killer sword and hunt down Ares, or at least obtain proof of his extermination. While her mother, Hippolyta, does not want her to become a warrior, her aunt, the fierce fighter Antiope (Robin Wright), secretly trains her in the art of combat. These skills soon come in handy when a British spy fleeing the Germans during World War I crash lands his plane in the ocean just off the island. Soon, pursuing Germans attack the beach, and the Amazons are forced to defend it with their lives.

The man whom Diana saves from a watery grave is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an idealistic young soldier. Diana has never seen a man before, but after the German onslaught, she is convinced that Ares is behind this “Great War” of men, and sets out (much to her mother’s protestations) with Steve to return to the front and take down Ares. Steve, for his part, is happy enough to have an unstoppable badass warrior fighting on his side to hopefully eliminate the nefarious Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the brilliant German scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), who has been testing a villainous new mustard gas that, if perfected, could turn the entire tide of the war.

There are certain tropes that almost have to be included in a superhero origin story. Thankfully, the film flies through the typical fish-out-of-water clichés (Diana trying on evening gowns, for example) to spend most of its time on the meat of the story. The film is dramatic but light on its feet and, dare I say, fun. After the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, DC seemed to start thinking that “gritty” and “dreary” were necessary attributes for all their films. But Nolan’s films set up an astonishing and consistent moral universe, something sorely missing from the dull Man of Steel or the tonally schizophrenic Suicide Squad. Thanks to assured direction from Patty Jenkins and veteran TV writer Allan Heinberg’s dense screenplay, Wonder Woman is the first DC film since to present the kind of stark, good-versus-evil weight that put DC on the map.

Wonder Woman nails the balance between gravitas and fun missing from so much modern comic book fare.

Say what you will about Marvel Studios’ often excellent output, but DC has always had the potential to present a weightier, more compelling universe. Marvel is brilliantly done popcorn fare, but popcorn fare nonetheless. DC, at its best, presents something more, and this is what Wonder Woman gets right where so many others got it wrong.

Diana’s central moral quandary is, what if humanity is not, on the whole, as flawless as she was raised to believe? What if it is not Ares that drives men to be wicked, but rather something deep inside humans themselves? Something that causes them to kill one another, to be dishonest or cheat and steal? Would such an inherently flawed creature still be worth protecting? This is so much more gripping than the humorous fish-out-of-water shenanigans of say, Thor, and it’s this major conflict that propels the film to a higher level than many that have come before it. Everything is given a spiritual, existential weight, but none of it feels forced. If Diana is meant to embody a messianic motif, this is apparent only in the choices she makes; the heavy-handed Jesus imagery of Batman vs. Superman is blessedly absent here.

But the film’s philosophical heft is only one of its strengths. There’s also the performances, filled with marvelous character actors (hello, David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner) and some of the best work Chris Pine has ever done. There’s a mix of good-humored charm and seriousness Pine possesses that few actors can rival. Then, there’s Gadot. Anyone who made it all the way through Batman vs. Superman know how good she already is in this role. She feels like she was born to play Wonder Woman. This comes through in her physicality, her mischievous smile and her expressive face. She is unbelievably marvelous.

Speaking of marvelous, seeing Diana kick German ass is pretty satisfying. Armed with her glowing lasso of truth, her bullet-deflecting bracelets and her legendary shield (no invisible plane here, sadly), Diana is a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. The moment where she emerges from the grimy trenches, where the soldiers have barely made any headway in a year, and busts out her shield as bullets bounce harmlessly off of it, is a moment of pure awe. A later scene where Diana leads the soldiers in a takedown of an entire village of German troops is simply astonishing, and should go down as one of the finest action scenes in superhero movie history. The action and visuals are stunning throughout, though I suppose folks who are not fans of slow-mo may tire of the effect. I think it’s used effectively throughout, and, unlike, say, 300, it’s not overdone, but it does occasionally come off as a tad cheesy.

I’m grasping to try to find things to criticize here. There are a few origin story clichés, but they’re easily overwhelmed by all of the good stuff. Wonder Woman does far more than right DC’s rickety cinematic ship. It stands tall as one of the finest superhero films to come along in some time, maybe ever. It’s also proof that the world is ready for female superheroes (and female directors!) as long as they’re attached to a quality product. I say, bring it on ladies, and long live the Queen!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 review

Given the earth-shattering success of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, it can be easy to forget that the film was quite the gamble. Based upon a relatively obscure property, many wondered whether Marvel’s galactic stories about a bizarre ragtag group of selfish bounty hunters and wannabe heroes would transfer well to screen. Maybe a gun-toting squirrel and an anthropomorphic tree were just a little too strange for audiences to fully embrace.

Aren’t we all so glad we were wrong? Not only did the original film crush it at the box office, it also earned some of the strongest reviews in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. That was mostly thanks to the film’s colorful visuals, its likable case of characters and its hilariously irreverent and whip-smart dialogue. But lightning rarely strikes twice, and though anticipation for the inevitable sequel was high, you would be excused for being wary. I’m happy to say that, with a stellar returning cast, writer-director James Gunn’s sure guiding hand and a heartfelt story, Volume 2 is an all-around home run, one that is sure to thrill fans while living up to the pedigree established by its predecessor.

We find our original heroes a few years after the events of the original. They’ve taken their moniker to heart, guarding the galaxy from all sorts of nefarious threats and learning to work as a team after reluctantly banding together. The de-facto team leader is Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), whose happy-go lucky, retro music loving ways fail to hide his unease over never knowing who his father was. There’s also the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), with whom Quill has an “unspoken thing,” according to him, at least. They’re joined by the socially awkward warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), the foul-mouthed raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the adorable Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), who has become relatively helpless after being reborn from the ashes of the original intimidating Groot, who sacrificed himself to save his team.

In one of the most creative openings credit sequences I’ve seen, the team is fighting off a large tentacled beast while Baby Groot dances in the foreground. This beast is there to destroy a valuable power supply created by the golden-skinned race known as the Sovereign.

The mission is an initial success, but after Rocket takes offense to the race’s haughty tone, he decides to pocket the golden batteries, which should fetch a fortune. This sets in motion a massive manhunt, with the Sovereign fleet overwhelming our heroes until a mysterious and powerful stranger saves the day. This stranger, known as Ego (Kurt Russell), claims to be Quill’s father. But, if that’s true, why did he abandon Quill to be raised by the uncouth bounty hunter Yondu (Michael Rooker)? And where has he been all these years? As Quill attempts to untangle his complex past, Gamora is dealing with family issues of her own. Her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), still smarting from her defeat in the first film, is single-mindedly obsessed with destroying her sister and everyone she loves. Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is a hilarious and heartfelt follow-up to the smash-hit original.

If the plot sounds a little overstuffed, that’s because it is. The story is never confusing, but there are a lot of moving parts, and separating the team for a good chunk of the running time doesn’t help matters. The film lacks the laser-sharp focus of the original, and removing a few side characters (Sylvester Stallone’s appearance as a legendary outlaw seems almost entirely unnecessary) would have helped improve the pacing.

With many films, these inconsistencies would be a major issue. But, with a film as off-the-wall as Guardians, it really is a minor complaint. Everything else about the film is absolutely wonderful.

James Gunn proves once again why he’s one of the best writers in film. His dialogue is brilliant and beyond hilarious. I found myself laughing more than I did in the original, thanks to Rocket’s and Quill’s playfully antagonistic banter and a bevy of brilliantly conceived running gags (Taser Face stands as my personal favorite). The jokes are rapid-fire, and I couldn’t recall a one that felt flat. This is the kind of movie you’ll want to see again to catch all of the little lovingly crafted details and blink-or-you’ll-miss-it gags.

In addition to being the funniest Marvel film, Volume 2 stands with Doctor Strange as the most visually engaging. In an era where summer blockbusters feel the need to make everything drab, gray and “gritty,” there’s something so refreshing about a movie with color. From the shimmering skin of the Sovereign to Ego’s Edenic home planet, everything here feels lovingly crafted in a way that effects-heavy films rarely are. One action scene in particular, featuring Yondu’s legendary whistling red arrow, becomes a brutal light show that feels like a true work of art.

Volume 2’s humor makes it good, but what makes it great is the heart at the center of it. Like the original, the film contains characters you will care deeply about, from Star Lord to seemingly minor characters like Ego’s antennaed assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). And, as Quill’s relationship to his birth father begins to reveal its layers as he ponders his relationship with his adopted father, the movie imparts a valuable lesson about the importance of family, whatever that word means. Family is blood, certainly, but it’s also whoever has your back no matter what. It’s anyone who would lay down their life for you, who would stick by you until the bitter end.

I’m grateful for this unlikely family of lovable misfits, and I imagine many moviegoers are too.  As long as the Guardians films remain this thrilling, funny, heartfelt and lovingly crafted, I’m on board to witness their exploits for years to come.

The Circle review

“Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.” So goes the mantra of Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) one of the men in charge of technology giant The Circle. James Ponsoldt’s film, names after the company, imagines an organization not too far from reality, a powerful but potentially unholy blend of Google and Facebook, with maybe a bit of Disney thrown in.

Based upon Dave Egger’s prescient novel, the film, which Eggers helped adapt to screen, is a sometimes insightful but ultimately fairly mundane examination of the question, what would the world look like if we valued knowledge and access to information as a right above privacy?

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a talented young woman wasting her youth (and her art history degree) working for the local utility company and living with her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles). But Mae’s life changes when her long-term friend Annie (Karen Gillan) snags her an interview with the most powerful and trendy tech company on the planet. It’s the kind of place that features weekly Ted-esque innovation talks, Friday night concerts from Beck and more clubs and activities than one could possibly do in a lifetime.

Mae succeeds in getting a job in Customer Experience, where many budding circlers start their meteoric careers. She is, at first, predictably overwhelmed. There’s her customer satisfaction score (1-100), as well as her social circle account (like Facebook, but with a specific popularity rank number tied to it). Then, there’s her weekend trips to her parent’s to help take care of her ailing MS-diagnosed father. Between all this, the poor girl barely has time to indulge in her favorite activity: kayaking.

But none of this is enough to stop Mae’s determination. Her work ethic soon gets the attention of Bailey and fellow company leader Tom (Patton Oswalt), along with the mysterious Ty (John Boyega), who warns her that abandoning privacy completely and “completing the circle” will have an irreversible cost.

Mae is skeptical. Look at what good The Circle is doing for humanity. We’re on our way to complete transparency, where tiny marble-sized cameras can be placed anywhere and camouflaged, unseen to the naked eye. With everyone afraid of getting caught, crime could be almost eliminated overnight. No more theft, no more shootings, no more dictators committing massive human rights violations. The Circle envisions a perfect utopia of accountability, where people behave within the confines of law and decency, because the only other choice is to be seen and known. There will be no shadows to hide in, and that is something Mae wants desperately to be a part of, no matter the cost. As Mae rises through the ranks of The Circle, she is forced to consider the moral imperative of the company’s efforts, along with its potential pitfalls.

Eggers’ and Ponsoldt’s script follows all of the main beats from the novel, and in a few cases adds some interesting twists to the equation. But the story still feels rushed; even with the elimination of some extraneous plot threads, there are so many interesting characters that don’t feel like full flesh-and-blood people. This somewhat deadens the emotional impact of some of the film’s more dramatic scenes.

The Circle raises some provocative questions in the information age, but doesn’t have enough gripping character moments to sustain interest.

This missed opportunity extends to the acting (and I’m not just talking about Watson’s dubious American accent). There is a very talented cast here, but many of the major players feel underutilized. Oswalt, Boyega and Hanks don’t get as much screen time as they deserve, and, when the film’s revelations are brought to light, we still don’t know much about their backgrounds or how they play into the proceedings.

The visuals are the film’s most interesting bullet point. The screen is often filled with pop up messages commenting on events in a variety of languages. This commentary is sometimes relevant but often delightfully random, and it contributes to the film’s growing sense of unease and dread over just how invasive technology can be. Without giving much away, this visual element is directly tied to a major story point, so it feels natural but never excessive or distracting.

One of the film’s major faults may lie with its marketing. The previews sold The Circle as a techno-thriller, with Mae discovering shady dealings inside the company and speaking out about them. That’s not what happens in the book, and I’m thankful that the film sticks closer to Mae’s inner moral conundrum regarding the necessary limitations of technology. But, this type of story is decidedly smaller and less high-stakes, and those looking for a grand conspiracy at the center of the story should check their expectations.

Egger’s script is also a bit softer and less acerbic than his novel, and that is most prevalent in the character of Mae. In the book, she turns from an idealistic young go-getter into a complete monster, alienating her family and friends for the “greater good” of the company, but the film makes her decidedly more sympathetic. I recall a great sense of tragedy reading about this slow moral degradation, but the film misses out on that character arc. Making Mae into a slightly more heroic figure probably makes the film more commercially palatable, but it also makes it less interesting. Her mixed motivations muddy the message a bit, particularly in the ending, which is still kind of cool but takes her ultimate decision in a different direction.

The Circle asks some extremely important questions, ones well worth mulling on. Are there some things we are not meant to know? What are the limits of science and technology in a connected world, if there are any? Is knowledge more important than privacy? Where is the line between privacy and secrecy? The film does an admirable job tackling these big questions, but it does so at the expense of truly interesting and memorable characters. It’s a fine film, but the center of this circle feels a bit hollow.

Logan review

Without a doubt, Logan aka The Wolverine is one of the most iconic and celebrated characters in all of comic book history. And, since the original X-Men film released in 2000, he has also been an iconic screen presence. This is thanks mostly to Hugh Jackman, who has played the adamantium-clawed mutant in one form or another across nine films. Now, the actor is hanging up the muttonchops, closing the book on a character he has embodied for 17 years.

With Jackman’s final outing, Logan, he returns with The Wolverine director James Mangold for a much darker, more brutal take on Wolverine’s legacy, one that is filled with complex emotions, shocking violence, and more than its fair share of homages to classic cinema (particularly the western). Does the film live up to the character’s storied cinematic legacy? Absolutely. A few quibbles keep me from declaring Logan the best comic-based film since The Dark Knight. But, it’s pretty damn close.

The film jumps forward in time, bringing us to the year 2029, where Logan is working as a limousine driver near the Texas border. From the start, this is a different Logan that what we’re used to seeing; greying and weary, he would rather mind his own business than pick a fight. But, the film spares no time showing us what happens when the claws are forced to come out; within the first few minutes we see the bloody results when Wolverine’s famous rage is forced to come out and play.

At this point in the story, Logan has been alive for hundreds of years; thanks to his miraculous healing abilities, he ages much more slowly than the average human (or mutant). This is a future where mutant kind has been all but wiped out, and the X-Men we know and love are long gone. The man who once fought in the Civil War is tired, and beyond ready to die. In fact, he keeps an adamantium-laced bullet on hand to force his passing, if necessary. But Logan still has a mission—taking care of the ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is being kept in a silo across the Mexican border. The most powerful mind in the world has been prone to seizures, of the earth-shattering, potential to destroy the world type. The silo keeps Xavier’s mind trapped, as does a series of medications administered by his caretaker, the mysterious albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant).

But, Logan and Xavier are soon forced to go on the run after a mysterious man named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) comes asking about a little girl with strange powers. It’s obvious this man means the girl harm. As it turns out, a woman has been following Logan, asking if he can escort said girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) to a mutant safe-haven known as Eden, which may or may not actually exist. Logan is understandably reluctant—why chase after a fairy tale? And how can this girl be a mutant, when one hasn’t been born in decades?

As events draw them together, what follows is essentially a chase film mixed with a classic road trip, as Logan, Laura and Xavier make their way to North Dakota, all the way pursued by Pierce and his men, backed by the genetic research organization Transigen. What could they possibly want with this girl? And how powerful is she, exactly?

From the get go, the film exudes a quiet, soulful mood, so far removed from the flashiness of X-Men films past. The script heavily references the classic western Shane, and, in many ways, the film feels like a Western. The lonely wanderer, forced to defend someone from violent attackers who slowly comes to learn more about himself through the process is an ancient tale. But nothing like this has ever been attempted in a Marvel film before, and that helps to freshen the approach.

The tone and pacing of Logan are absolute home runs. Like Marvel’s recent Netflix shows such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the film feels as though it takes place in the real world, where people die and forgiveness is not easily earned. Take, for example, the moment where Logan spies one of Laura’s X-Men comics and proclaims that the vast majority of those stories are made up. Such a technique can easily come off as cheekily self-referential, but here it manages to ground the story in real space and time.

Logan is an emotional and grueling journey, but one well worth taking for fans of thought-provoking comic book fare.

The effect can be jarring, especially when the characters reference the events of previous films, so wildly different in tone and setting. But there’s still plenty of splashy action amidst the more contemplative mood. A sequence that takes place at a casino is one of the best in the X-Men franchise, and we get plenty of chances to see Wolverine go full-beast mode, particularly in a jaw-dropping battle set in a forest.

But, the emotional core of the story is the character relationships, and it is here that Logan transforms into something special. These are characters fans care deeply about, and seeing them fully wrestle with their lives and legacies is deeply moving. The emotion is driven in by the soulful performances. Take a look at Jackman and Stewart and tell me if they’ve ever been better. Keen is also a revelation. As Laura, she is asked to carry the weight of the film, acting as the catalyst for Logan’s journey. She is incredible both in her ferocity and her subtlety, and her relationship with Logan is beautifully rendered and achingly poignant.

Perhaps one of the film’s great strengths, and also its greatest weakness, is its air of mystery. We’re asked to piece together what exactly happened to the rest of the mutants in the missing years, as well as how Logan and Xavier ended up where they did. Sometimes, a clue can be a single line of dialogue. This works well for some revelations, but others fall flat. Caliban, for example, is an intriguing character that we don’t really get to know. Most of his purpose was served in the past, but, since he was first introduced in this film, we’re not able to form the same kind of connection with him as we can with the other characters. I suppose you could say that the villains are fairly weak, but, since this the film is much more about Logan’s inner journey, this is much less of a complaint as it can be in other Marvel fare. There are also a few plot points that could have been fleshed out more—explanations and motivations are sometimes interrupted by shocking violence, never to be picked up again.

Speaking of violence, Logan is a ridiculously bloody movie. Those who have read the Old Man Logan source material should not be shocked by this. While people have been clamoring for an R-rated Wolverine flick for some time, there is something to say about a tad bit of restraint, and, when it comes to violence, the film has none. The deft, subtle hand shown in so much of the rest of the film is absent from the action and violence, which is relentless and graphic. Expect tons of sliced torsos, decapitated heads and gushing limb removal.

Whether you like Logan or not may ultimately depend on what you think the comic-based superhero film is supposed to be. Logan is thought-provoking, emotional and painfully intimate. It is not, however, a very “enjoyable” flick, and not one I recommend munching popcorn while watching. I see room for this kind of film alongside stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy. They may not have the same audience, and that’s okay. For those looking to be “entertained” by a Wolverine movie rather than challenged, I recommend one of the character’s previous outings.

When thinking of Logan, I pause less on the brutal violence than the brutal emotions, the painful intimacy and raw emotion of the whole affair. This is a gorgeous, moody, wonderful film for those ready to submit themselves to the experience. It asks us to ponder what it means to have a legacy, what it means to have a family and how one can wrestle successfully with the sins of the past. Best of all, it takes risks. They may not all completely pay off, but when was the last time you associated “risk” with a Marvel movie?

La La Land review

“People in L.A. worship everything but value nothing.” So says Sebastian in Damien Chazelle’s miraculous musical romance La La Land. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a passionate jazz musician with dreams of opening his own club, but he’s stuck playing bland Christmas tunes in dingy restaurants. He’s frustrated by the lack of passion people around him bring to their lives, along with the fact that he himself can’t hold a steady job as he pursues his own dreams.

Mia (Emma Stone) faces a similar predicament. She gave up college and moved from her Nevada home to pursue acting, but, despite numerous auditions, she can’t seem to get a call back. When she meets Sebastian, she’s initially repulsed, but quickly she begins to warm to his charms and his zest for life. A romance blossoms, but it isn’t long before reality comes knocking for these starry-eyed dreamers. Can these two build a life together, sharing in each other’s’ burdens and ambitions? Or will the cold hand of failure and the everyday struggles of life tear them (and their careers) apart?

The central question of the film is, how does one continue to hold onto hope in the midst of resistance? How can you reach for the stars when life only seems to give you gravel? It’s a profound question, particularly in a year like 2016, when so many have felt beaten into submission by the woes of human experience.

For anyone feeling downtrodden, La La Land is the greatest Christmas present you could ask for. This is a film that will keep a smile on your face during most of its run time, a joyous celebration of the desires of the heart, and the perseverance of hope through all possible obstacles.

The film is love letter to two of my favorite things: movies and jazz. Chazelle already examined the passion of jazz music in the stellar Whiplash, but that film was dark and emotionally brutal. In contrast, La La Land is an infectious, upbeat and ear-catching marvel. This is the kind of film where you can feel the love of movie-making stitched into every frame, a film where the depth of passion and vision behind its creation is palpable and, frankly, astonishing.

La La Land is an infectious ode to Hollywood, jazz and impossible dreamers.

La La Land is billed as a musical, and a musical is really only as good as its songs. Thankfully, Justin Hurwitz’s tunes are mostly great. I’ve been obsessed with this soundtrack ever since I walked out of the theater (and am a particular fan of “City of Stars” and “The Fools Who Dream”). The dance sequences are also phenomenal, from the Fame style jaunt in the midst of an L.A. traffic jam that opens the film to a gorgeous tap-dancing sequence that hearkens to Gene Kelley and a dreamy flight through the Griffith observatory that is its own wondrous creation.

Thankfully, Chazelle’s dialogue is every bit as masterful as the songs. The writing throughout is funny, relatable and emotionally resonant. But what really takes the film to another level is the performances. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are no Astaire and Rodgers, and that’s what makes them so good. Their dancing is charming, their singing voices more than adequate. But, two struggling artists shouldn’t be masterful performers; it makes more sense that the characters would be rougher around the edges. To keep them from perfection is to keep them relatable (though still impossibly gorgeous).

That’s not to discount the marvelous work by the two leads. This is Stone’s best-ever role, proving once again her talent for giving nakedly emotional and absorbing performances. I’m a big Gosling fan, and this role shows off both his comedic and dramatic talents expertly. Despite the film’s flashy style, I never felt like I was watching “movie stars” on screen.  I felt like I was watching Mia and Sebastian. These roles feel lived-in, and that extends to the supporting cast (including a surprisingly excellent John Legend).

La La Land’s ending is not exactly a happy one, but it feels authentic, just like the rest of the film. There’s not a false note in sight. It is in many ways a simple film, but it’s not simplistic. It has a lot to say about the importance of holding onto dreams, and even conveys the welcome message that being traditional and old-fashioned isn’t always a bad thing. Some may call La La Land itself old-fashioned. If that’s the case, then I say it’s hip to be square.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story review

From its opening moments, it’s clear that Rogue One is going to be a different kind of Star Wars movie than what we’ve seen before. It’s a risky move from Lucasfilm: create a non-numbered film in the beloved sci-fi universe (sans opening story scroll), a prequel of sorts that attempts to answer one of the biggest questions from the 1977 original. How did the Rebel Alliance obtain the plans to the Imperial Death Star, the ones that Princess Leia hands off to R2-D2 and which eventually prompt Luke Skywalker to initiate the most famous explosion in movie history?

It’s a question worth asking, and a story worth exploring. However, it’s still easy to believe that Rogue One may be more of a cynical cash grab from Disney, who now owns Lucasfilm— a desperate attempt to wring more money out of a famous franchise. I am very happy to report that such concerns can be safely put to bed, because Rogue One is a lovingly crafted and thrilling tale, and one that fans of the franchise will almost certainly dig.

The film opens with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as a young girl, watching her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) get carted off by the Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to assist in building a super-weapon that will turn the tide in the war between the Imperial Army and the Rebel Alliance. Jyn, however, successfully hides, and is rescued and trained by resistance leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

When we next see Jyn, it is 15 years later, and she is “rescued” from an Imperial prison transport by resistance fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his re-programmed Imperial droid, K-2SO, voiced by a quip-filled Alan Tudyk. Why does the resistance want Jyn? Because her father has been the principal mastermind behind the construction of the Death Star, and she may be the only one who can convince Gererra to help track him down and extract the location of the Death Star plans. To complicate matters, Imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) has shown up, claiming to have a message straight from Galen regarding the Death Star plans.

Soon, Jyn is whisked away on a planet-spanning adventure to snatch the Death Star plans and save her father, if indeed he can be saved. Along the way, the resistance picks up some additional ragtag fighters, including the mysterious blind monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his heat-packing protector, Baze (Wen Jiang). But time is running short: the Death Star has already tested its formidable destructive capabilities, and the shadowy presence of Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) looms. Can they successfully storm the Imperial stronghold, steal the plans and turn the tide of battle once again?

We already know the answer to that question, and therein lies the tricky balance of a tale like this one. Can a story whose conclusion is forgone still manage to surprise us? Perhaps the biggest success of the film is that director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy so successfully make this story feel essential. This isn’t just a paint-by-numbers, fill-in-the-gaps mid-quel. It deepened my appreciation of the original, and even fills in a major plot hole and long-time complaint that could be leveled at it. Why the heck would the Imperial Army build the Death Star with such a small but fatal flaw? By films end, that head-scratcher is given a very satisfying answer.

Rogue One is a thrilling adventure, and a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe.

Story-wise, Rogue One is a success, but what about all these new characters? For the most part, they’re welcome additions. I felt more emotionally connected to the characters here than I did watching The Force Awakens. Jyn’s love for her father is a particularly strong motivator, and the camaraderie the resistance fighters share is palpable. The heart of Star Wars has always been its characters, and this one is beating and alive. I particularly liked K-2SO, who adds some much-needed humor to the proceedings, and Chirrut, who is just a straight-up bad-ass, and has a connection with the force unlike any we’ve seen in this universe so far.

But, when I start to dwell on particular characters, I begin to recognize my biggest complaint with the film. There are lots of new characters introduced here, and it’s understandable that not all of them would get fully satisfying arcs. But why did the best characters have to get the short end of the stick? I was glad to see the amazing Yen get such a major role, and his character’s relationship with Baze is affecting. But his motivations are vague and, although he’s meant to be mysterious, I felt like I didn’t get to know him well enough to have a major connection with him. He’s mostly there to look cool, and come along on the adventure because…he has nothing better to do? Or look at Saw Gerrera; a major role played by an A-list actor, and yet he’s sadly under-utilized. I wish some of these other characters had been given the same care and attention as the Ersos or Cassian.

The film also suffers from poor pacing in its first third. Characters are introduced haphazardly, and scenes cut back and forth chaotically. It’s a bit hard to follow at first. But man, does Rogue One ever get going once it hits its stride. Krennic is a great addition to Star Wars villainy, a sniveling ass-kisser with a lust for power and a persecution complex. He’s just unhinged enough to be menacing, but even he cowers in front of Darth Vader, which fans we be thrilled to see return to the screen. The legendary Sith Lord’s screen time is brief, but you feel every moment. His character is brilliantly utilized, with just enough fan service to satisfy without overdoing it.

Rogue One is often filmed closer to a gritty war film that a traditional Star Wars movie; the bright colors of The Force Awakens are almost nowhere to be found. We instead get lots of handheld footage, some shaky cam and lots of muted colors. This is the right design for the divergent tone of the film, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography, along with the stellar production design, go a long way towards selling the film. The action scenes are sensational, sure, but I’m more impressed with how much it looks like A New Hope. From the costumes, to the way the X-Wings and Star Destroyers fly to the design of the Death Star, every frame is crafted like a work of art. This is a gorgeous film, and one I highly recommend seeing in Imax 3-D.

There’s just something about the joy of being in the Star Wars universe that Rogue One gets, and that is perhaps its greatest triumph. We get to see tons of new planets during the film’s run time, and several interesting and original creatures. I’ve always loved the backgrounds of Star Wars films, filled with characters and stories we will probably never know. There’s so much mystery and creativity to it, the kind that spans hundreds of novels, video games and TV shows to attempt to fill in some of the gaps. It’s the most lived-in universe in all of cinema, and Rouge One invites us into that space and doesn’t let go.

Rogue One is not the most polished of Star Wars films. In fact, elements of it can be downright frustrating. But man, is this one cool movie, and during the sensational climax and pitch-perfect ending, I felt my complaints melting away. This is a must-see for franchise fans, and one I’ll be happy to include in my Star Wars marathon rotation for years to come.

Arrival review

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The best science fiction films are about so much more than their subject matter. They probe deeper, asking complex questions about what it means to be human, about what unites us and divides us, about the role (and limitations) of science in advancing humankind. Aliens, like zombies, are not really that interesting apart from their metaphorical trappings.

Smart sci-fi understands this. And Arrival is certainly that. In fact, it’s brilliant; a haunting and somber meditation on grief, love and the primal bonds that unite us. It’s also one of the most original sci-fi films in years.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is called in by Col. Webber (Forest Whitaker) to translate an alien language. The mysterious visitors have just arrived in a large, black oblong pod over a field in Montana, and 11 others have interspersed across the globe in places like Russia, Australia and China. This arrival predictably causes a global panic; mass looting and plummeting stocks soon follow. Could this be the end of the world?

Dr. Banks is teamed with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelley (Jeremy Renner) to enter the local pod, which opens every 18 hours, and attempt to communicate with the tentacled creatures inside. What follows are weeks of visits with the creatures, as the team attempts to decipher a visual language that can best be described as a series of inky circles. The hope is to eventually understand the answer to the question, “why are they here?”

But language is a subtle thing, and fear does not invite subtlety or compromise. It’s not long before the various nations collaborating on communicating with their pods begin to get anxious. Why take chances with these guys? Are we simply standing by for our own destruction? What are these visitors waiting for, and why won’t they leave?

In the vein of The Martian and other recent films in the genre, Arrival stands out by making the science more important than the fiction. Dr. Banks’ linguistic process is intensely systematic and exhaustive. Much of the film consists of characters poring over notes, drawing and having complex conversations about the nature of communication. It’s all a bit heavy, and in less deft hands could come off as a bit dull. But writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) turn the film into a complex jigsaw puzzle, with individual scenes that slowly piece together into a larger whole. It’s a slow but intoxicating burn.

Arrival is thought-provoking and intelligent sci-fi, and may go down as a genre classic.

Arrival is thought-provoking and intelligent sci-fi, and may go down as a genre classic.

The film might also fall apart if it didn’t give us cool creatures or environments. But the alien pod is a visual marvel, as are the creatures themselves (referred to as septapods). Separated from the humans by a barrier, they’re often cloaked in a mysterious mist, and the fact that we can’t quite make out their full forms leads to a constant sense of unease and suspense. They eventually become their own characters, with nicknames and highly intelligent ways of processing information. These are not just your average vague CGI space creatures. I also want to praise the sparse but effective sound design and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s chilling score; they give the film a great deal of punch it may have otherwise lacked.

Descriptions of Arrival may come off as cold, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The film is incredibly emotional and achingly human, and that’s mostly thanks to Adams’ performance, the best of her career. She portrays Dr. Banks as both highly intelligent and a bit of an emotional wild card, someone who has an intimate connection with the septapods to the point where she can almost think like them. She feels deeply, and that can be both a strength and a weakness. As with Emily Blunt in Sicario, Villeneuve has a knack for drawing sensational performances from strong leading ladies, and that strength is used to grand effect here.

It’s tough to write about the film without giving away what makes it special. There is a twist, one that I was surprised I didn’t guess. Perhaps wiser film-goers will find in highly telegraphed, but I’m still thinking about the ramifications of it and what I would do if I was in a similar situation. It’s devastating and, at the same time, quite powerful.  It’s up to individuals to decide if the film does enough to solve its grand mystery in a satisfying fashion. There’s a fine line between leaving us guessing in a good way and simply not giving us enough information to be emotionally satisfied, but I think it strikes the perfect balance.

The ultimate question of all great art is, “what makes us human?” Sci-fi is uniquely positioned to meditate on that, because it often includes a non-human entity to contrast. Arrival is no different, but it goes about the question through a lens I haven’t quite seen before.

Arrival’s subtleties and minimalist design may not satisfy everyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ultimately goes down as a genre classic. In the realm of alien invasion flicks, it should certainly be mentioned alongside the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  It’s a film that will inspire conversation, and it’s one I will be thinking about for some time.

Doctor Strange review

Is this really happening? Am I really reviewing a Doctor Strange movie right now? Ten years ago, the idea of such a thing would have seemed a distant dream to comic book fans. But therein lies the insane genius of Marvel Studios. Everyone could have probably predicted an Avengers film at some point. But Guardians of the Galaxy? Ant Man? Doctor Strange? Fans of geek comic lore might bite, but your average filmgoer would raise an eyebrow and move on. Except that’s not what happened. Time and again, the comic giant has spun gold out of increasingly outlandish and obscure franchises. And Doctor Strange might be its wildest yet. Whatever the conditions that birthed the film, fans should be grateful: this is one of the trippiest and coolest Marvel films to date.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a wildly successful (and wildly narcissistic) neurosurgeon who injures his hands in a car accident. After burning through his money seeking increasingly exotic treatments and alienating his it’s-complicated lover Christine (Rachel McAdams), Strange hears whispers of a mystical society called Kamar-Taj in Nepal. With nothing left to lose, he ventures afar in search of healing.

But Strange gets much more than he bargained for, and is quickly introduced to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystical being trained in the magic arts. He is taken under the tutelage of sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who helps him discover realities far beyond any his highly scientific and rational mind has previously thought possible. The Astral Plane, multiple dimensions and the ability to travel through space and control time. Together, this secret society of mystics helps protect Earth from an ancient and all-consuming evil. Of course, a former disciple (who else?) of the Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), thinks that this being is actually benevolent, and so he sets out to destroy the magic shield protecting the world and bring it into harmony with other already devoured universes.


Doctor Strange is a visual stunner, and takes the Marvel universe to some trippy new places.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on here, and it would be very easy for a film like this to get bogged down in exposition or extraneous details. Thankfully, director Scott Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill do a great job of keeping things moving smoothly. They also run with this material, really milking the creative potential of this downright, well…strange material. This comes across in the film’s humor (which, like other Marvel films, is gentle but still elicits belly laughs) and in its characters, which are memorable and creative. There wasn’t a major character I didn’t enjoy, or one who felt extraneous to the story or shoehorned in. Even the villain, who isn’t written particularly interesting, gets a pass thanks to the amazing Mikkelsen, who can do no wrong in my book. The film also seems to take lessons from past Marvel films in avoiding overt connections to the extended universe that often take us out of the story being told.

Of course, the main draw of the film is its visuals, and they are beyond spectacular. This is honestly one of the coolest looking films I’ve seen, and certainly the most visually engaging in the Marvel canon. The special effects work is simply second-to-none, and it gets my vote as the most creative since, probably, Inception. That is remarkably high praise, but when you see entire buildings torn apart and put back together, trippy 2001-esque voyages through space and action sequences that play with fast-forwarded, reversed and paused time, it may be hard to argue otherwise. Everyone who worked on the visual effects here deserve the highest praise (and an Oscar), and the film should be seen on the biggest screen possible.

In other ways, Doctor Strange is less creative. This is, in the end, another superhero origin story, and it doesn’t do anything particularly new with that arc. It very much feels like Iron Man, but with magic and sorcery instead of technology. Like Tony Stark, Strange goes through a redemptive character transformation, but it’s not on the same level emotionally as Stark’s was. Maybe we’ve seen this kind of story too much, or maybe Robert Downy Jr. is simply that good of an actor; he’s set the bar impossibly high even for a performer as all-around excellent as Cumberbatch. The film also fizzles a bit at the end, perhaps feeling a bit winded after throwing so much incredible stuff at us.

I’m certainly grateful that we’ve come to a place where a movie like Doctor Strange can not only actually get made, but earn a boatload of money and critical praise (yes, there was a Strange film in 1978; let us not speak of it again). The film takes the Marvel Cinematic Universe to some psychedelic and exciting new places. Now that we have heroes in heaven, outer space, the quantum realm and the astral plane, where do we have left to go? I don’t know, but if we keep getting films this creative and fun, I’m along for the very strange ride.