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Doctor Strange (2016)

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The fourteenth instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the second entry in their Phase 3 plan, Doctor Strange brings yet another avenger into the already crowded Marvel family while introducing mystic arts & alternate dimensions to its ever-expanding universe. Overdosed with suffocating levels of CGI, following Marvel’s typical narrative formula beneath its visually complex exterior, and steered by a stellar performance from its charismatic lead, this origin story offers its viewers a kaleidoscopic journey through astral realms, infinite realities & spacetime contortions yet fails to set itself apart from the norm.

Doctor Strange tells the story of Stephen Strange, a highly revered but equally arrogant neurosurgeon whose bright medical career ends abruptly after he loses the use of his hands following a car accident. Spending all his resources on experimental surgeries in order to regain his abilities, he finally heads to the east for a last resort treatment and meets the Ancient One, a powerful sorcerer who acquaints him to multiverse and teaches him ways to harness energy & shape realities through the mystic arts. But when a former disciple of the Ancient One threatens the fabric of the known world, Strange is put to the ultimate test and must rely on his metaphysical powers to save the world.

Co-written & directed by Scott Derrickson (best known for The Exorcism of Emily Rose & Sinister), Doctor Strange marks his first stint with comic book filmmaking and although he succeeds to quite an extent in delivering a sufficiently entertaining extravaganza, his latest suffers from the same set of issues that has plagued nearly all his works to date. Derrickson is definitely gifted when it comes to paving a strong groundwork for his films and while he manages to keep the momentum going for the major portion of the narrative, he’s always struggled to conclude them on a satisfying note. And in that regard, Doctor Strange is no exception. Its first half is promising but the remaining half descends into another generic blockbuster.

The screenplay features a universe that’s full of imaginations & possibilities yet only scratches its surface. Beneath all that parallel universes, time manipulation & astral projections lies the same generic storyline following the same predictable route that we all have seen many times before. What’s interesting, however, is how it handles the arc of its titular character, for Stephen Strange remains an intriguing character at all times. Instead of diving into the complexities of mystic arts & alternate realities, it opts for shape-shifting, multi-faceted backgrounds that are eye-popping but carry no weight or meaning behind them. And as is the case with most Marvel Studios features, the film lacks an intimidating antagonist.

Coming to the technical aspects, Production Design team chips in with set pieces that brim with mystical qualities while props such as ancient artefacts & antiquated relics provide added details to the spiritual environment it was aiming for. Camera is used in a way so as to amplify the film’s prismatic backgrounds but its chosen angles, slightly muted colour tones & apt lighting don’t necessarily succeed at it. Editing gets slightly carried away by letting many events transpiring in astral planes & other dimensions overstay their welcome and although the pace is steady, the film still ends up running a little longer than it should have. Visual effects are jam-packed into nearly every scene and is overwhelming at times but it is also the film’s most striking highlight.

Coming to the performances, Doctor Strange features a talented ensemble in Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelson & Tilda Swinton, with both Cumberbatch & Swinton impressing the most. Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange is perfectly cast and does total justice to his role by illustrating the stubbornness, arrogance & ambition of the eponymous character with precision while his charming persona compels the audience to invest in his journey. Ejiofor does well with what he’s given. McAdams & Wong don’t have compelling roles, Mikkelson tries to imbue a sense of evilness into his character but there isn’t enough meat on his arc, while Swinton steals every one of her moments with effortless ease. And last but not the least, Michael Giacchino contributes with a score that’s fitting but not enthralling.

On an overall scale, Doctor Strange does serve its purpose by delivering an entertaining, amusing & serviceable origin story to fans of its faction and mainstream audience in general but it isn’t amazing enough to garner a spot amongst Marvel’s finest features. Travelling a safe, risk-free route and sugar-coated with trippy, hallucinatory visuals, it is much capable of standing on its own but also works as another stepping stone to the major crossover feature that’s due for release next year. Even though I expected much more from it, what it delivers in the end isn’t entirely a disaster and has its own share of positives but it’s also a shame because, given its premise, it was capable of so much more. A fine introduction, if not a memorable one, Doctor Strange is a typical fun-filled extravaganza that we’ve come to expect from Marvel Studios and is another enjoyable addition to its repertoire. Definitely worth a shot.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

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Back in 2014, John Wick breathed an air of freshness into the Hollywood action category that was on the sidelines for far too long and hadn’t produced a single memorable action flick in years. Nearly everything about that action thriller was downright invigorating, whether it’s the action choreography, the otherworldly setting, or the eponymous character himself. Helmed by stunt coordinators who certainly knew a thing or two about how to stage an action segment and make it look great, the resulting picture brimmed with so much style, charisma & energy that nearly every action aficionado embraced it with open arms. On top of that, it marked a welcome return to form for Keanu Reeves and revitalised his career with a role that was tailor-made for him.

Now I have always been skeptical about sequels. I strongly believe that it has no reason to exist if it cannot do a better job than the original. To improve upon the predecessor, to present significant upgrades in all filmmaking aspects, to further expand the universe its story is set in, and to aim for a bigger, better & far more ambitious showcase, all without discarding the elements that made the original so great, should be the reasons why a sequel should exist, or else it’s nothing but a mere cash-grab that adds nothing but a dent to the first chapter’s legacy. John Wick: Chapter 2 begins where its predecessor signed off and accomplishes every single thing mentioned above to deliver an action extravaganza that will leave its viewers gasping for breath.

John Wick: Chapter 2 continues the relentless journey of the extremely notorious assassin as he ties up all the loose ends and settles all disputes that were put into motion in the first film and returns home, back to his retired life. But his violent history catches up with him once again when Wick is visited by an Italian crime lord, Santino D’Antonio, who requires his services and asks him to honour the agreement that was symbolised by a blood-oath medallion. When John refuses, citing retirement, Santino burns down his house to compel him to return. After being reminded of the two unbreakable rules of the underworld, John agrees to repay the debt and gets the job done but is forced to enlist the help of a former foe after Santino attempts to wipe the slate clean.

Directed by Chad Stahelski, John Wick: Chapter 2 begins with an action-packed sequence that very much feels like an epilogue of the first chapter. Nevertheless, it works as an excellent reminder of who John Wick is, what he is capable of, and how greatly he is feared in the criminal underworld, in case you had forgotten. The story capitalises on the solid platform provided by its predecessor and sets up its own premise relatively quick, following which Stahelski launches an all-out assault on the senses by throwing one sumptuously choreographed segment after another that seamlessly weave in-n-out of the film’s dramatic portions and continues to escalate the stakes for the remainder of the story before wrapping it all up on a memorable high.

Written by Derek Kolstad, the plot outline featured in the screenplay has a very simple structure but the otherworldly setting that was expertly envisioned from scratch in the previous chapter and played a highly vital role in imbuing a sense of uniqueness to its world is exquisitely detailed in this sequel. It offers a deeper insight into the strict codes & morals that members of this criminal underworld live by, the numerous privileges of the underworld resources they get access to, and the unbreakable rules which, when violated, guarantees swift execution. In addition to that, the very aura of the man, the myth, the legend that has loomed over this franchise from the first film gets further magnified here, plus we get to witness first-hand why our titular character is such an intimidating icon in this universe.

The technical aspects showcase massive improvements in the minutest of areas, which in turn gives this picture a heavily refined look & feel. Production design team contributes with meticulously detailed & gorgeously rendered set pieces that add to its distinctive iconography yet retain the contemporary flavour of the original. Cinematography was one of the greatest highlights of its predecessor, especially for its neat camerawork that captured its moments of action in a clear, concise fashion, and it is even better in this second chapter, for the images retain their sharpness & clarity despite the insanely aggressive operation of the camera and maintains its focus on the eponymous character amidst all the mayhem that unfolds throughout its runtime, all of which is more uplifted by its neon lighting & vibrant colour tones.

Its expertly staged, ingeniously choreographed & precisely photographed gun-fu sequences are even more evolved, more barbaric & more breathtaking when compared to the original, and is bound to leave every action film fanatic in a state of pure bliss with its unabashedly brutal, relentlessly violent, high-octane, pulse-pounding combat sequences that simply keep surfacing from beginning to end. Editing paces its 122 minutes at breakneck speed, and the terrific balance between its action & drama is what makes the whole ride so visceral & engaging on every level. Costume design stands out again with its sleek & stylish attires, Visual & Sound effects work in perfect harmony and greatly amplify the desired effect of several moments, while both Tyler Bates & Joel J. Richard intensify the overall experience by contributing with another dynamic score.

Coming to the performances, John Wick: Chapter 2 is Keanu Reeves’ show all the way as the 52-year old veteran once again steals every single moment with the role he was born to play, and his swashbuckling performance in this instalment is even better than his last outing. The role is more physically demanding than last time, however, Reeves is able to fill the shoes with startling ease and utilises his charismatic on-screen flair to perfection to illustrate his Boogeyman character with unerring discipline. Ian McShane returns to play the enigmatic manager of the Continental Hotel and delivers another fab performance. The new additions consist of Ricardo Scamarcio, Common, Ruby Rose & Laurence Fishburne and even though Scamarcio isn’t an intimidating antagonist, he doesn’t overact like Michael Nyqvist did in the previous chapter. Fishburne only has a cameo but he makes full use of his limited screen time, Common leaves his mark as the elite bodyguard while Rose’s character is far more interesting than, say, Ms. Perkins.

On an overall scale, John Wick: Chapter 2 is such an exceptional upgrade over its predecessor that it ends up absolutely decimating the original in all departments of filmmaking and effortlessly exceeds all hype & expectations to cement its spot amongst the greatest action extravaganzas ever made. An insanely slick, smart, sophisticated & stunning amalgamation of kinetic direction, astounding action, excellent writing, outstanding camerawork, tight editing & faultless score that’s steered by an impeccable showcase from Keanu Reeves, the latest instalment in the John Wick saga is a brutal, barbaric & breathtaking entry that promises a non-stop thrill ride to its audience and delivers it in mind-blowing doses. A thrilling exercise in unlimited carnage, John Wick: Chapter 2 is to John Wick what The Dark Knight was to Batman Begins, and purely from an action standpoint, what The Raid 2 was to The Raid. Crafted with passion, told with confidence & executed with flamboyance, John Wick: Chapter 2 is one of the finest sequels ever made and is an action masterpiece for the ages. One hundred percent recommended.

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Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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A poignant, affecting & gut-wrenching drama about the voids that never fill & the scars that never heal, Manchester by the Sea is an honest depiction of loss, grief & trauma that’s handled with care, told with patience & brought to life with sincerity and is further uplifted by evocative performances from its committed cast, especially Casey Affleck who is an absolute revelation in his given role.

The story of Manchester by the Sea takes place in the titular town and follows a quiet, reserved & estranged man whose life takes a drastic turn after he receives the ill news of his brother’s death. Obliged to return to the place that harbours a past trauma, things get even more complicated for him when he finds out that he’s supposed to be his nephew’s guardian and struggles with the new responsibility.

Written & directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea is my first stint with his works and it is, by every means, one heavy stuff that’s dense with emotions. His direction exhibits remarkable restraint as Lonergan allows the plot & characters to breathe & unfold at their own pace. The story is character-driven and relies on their emotions to articulate the context of the given scene but it is exquisitely portrayed.

Another highlight is the care & attention given to its characters, for nearly everyone is embedded with meaty arcs & believable personas plus their course of action maintains a close proximity with real life behaviour. Lonergan understands that everyone grieves in their own ways and illustrates it with precision. And the slow reveal of the magnitude of the event that haunts our protagonist is bound to shatter its audience.

The technical aspects are aptly executed & extremely grounded and never tries to overshadow or take the focus away from its characters. The slow-burn narration is fitting, given its premise, but it will still frustrate a few viewers with its stillness & silent ruminations. Camerawork is mostly static, Editing is a mixed bag, for its plot could’ve been leaner & a bit better paced, while its background score has a muted presence.

Coming to the acting department, Manchester by the Sea features a reliable cast in Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler & C.J. Wilson, with Affleck impressing the most in what’s undeniably his career-best performance. Hedges plays his part brilliantly. Williams doesn’t get enough screen time but there is one moment where she & Affleck single-handedly elevate the entire picture to a whole new level with their jaw-dropping act.

On an overall scale, Manchester by the Sea is an emotionally scarring & profoundly upsetting film that is capable of tearing your soul apart with its authentic portrait of guilt, trauma & inner conflict. Powerfully moving at times, retaining the human aspect throughout, and culminating on a bittersweet note, this sad, tragic, painful, haunting & heartbreaking tale of a wrecked, tortured, wounded & devastated man’s life isn’t an easy sit but for those who can patiently connect with it, it may turn out to be a cinematic experience that’s as rewarding as it is humbling.

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