RIP Olivia deHavilland

Olivia deHavilland passed away over the weekend.  At age 104, she was officially the eldest “celebrity crush” I’ve ever had.

Looking back, I probably first saw her in Airport ’77, a lame film even by the low standards of 70s disaster flicks.  As the middle-aged “Worried Passenger #28” or whatever, she made far less of an impression on 12-year-old me than a drowned Christopher Lee floating past the window of a sunken 747.  It wasn’t until the 90s that I “discovered” Olivia in all her youthful glory, opposite Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, and THAT made an impression.  It’s a cliche to say a performer “lights up the screen,” but in her case it fit, as there was a genuine luminance to her features and perfomance, all the more remarkable given she was only 19 years old at the time.

If Flynn was, on screen anyway, the perfect hero — dashing, honorable, courageous, a leader of men, then Olivia was his ideal match: beautiful, elegant, virtuous and in her own, less flashy way, heroic as well.  Their chemistry was undeniable; whether in medievel Sherwood, 1700s Jamaica or 1800s Dodge City, they were drawn together as if reincarnated through the ages to continue a love affair that stretched over multiple lives.  It was only in 20th Century real life they couldn’t make it work, although Flynn at least seemed to wish it.

Of course, Olivia would go onto much bigger and better things than playing “The Girlfriend,” winning two Academy Awards (for whatever that’s worth),  no thanks to studio boss Jack Warner, who would’ve been happy to keep her in period epics and romantic comedies as “the girl” forever, if he could.  Loaned out to MGM for Gone With The Wind, she finally had a chance to show greater range, and like everyone else associated with that film achieved a level of immortality.  Even now, she may be best remembered as “the last surviving star of Gone With The Wind,” which is ironic as I find her “Melanie” character as maddeningly “goody-goody” as Scarlett O’Hara was insufferably rotten.  Scarlett may have been conniving and selfish, but at least she was a survivor.  Melanie, in comparison, was too sweet and pure and angelic to survive the harsh realities of Earth.

The real Olivia was made of sterner stuff, outliving all her peers from the Golden Age of Hollywood (more than twice as long as Flynn!) and going toe-to-toe with Jack Warner — a guy who’d successfully shoved around the likes of Jimmy Cagney and Bette Davis — to win her freedom from an unreasonable contract, in the process driving a stake through the studio system and empowering generations of performers to act as free agents.  At 103, she was in the news again, suing a production company for defamation and striking a blow, in her way, for all her old comrades who are “fair game” for any scriptwriter to slander now that they’ve passed on.  

So yeah, I know Olivia was formidable, and super-competent, and feisty to the end.  But I confess I’ll always love her best as “the girlfriend,” provided the “boyfriend” was Flynn.  Over his career, Errol was paired with fine leading ladies like Anne Sheridan, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Alexis Smith, but for most of us, there was Olivia and then there was everyone else.  When Errol and Olivia were on screen together, you believed they were meant for each other, and when Errol went into battle, you believed Olivia was the woman he’d risk everything for.

In fact, my favorite on-screen moment between the two comes in a pre-battle scene in They Died With Their Boots On.  Technically an “action picture” (which does have great action scenes) and a “bio-pic” (which isn’t even remotely close to historically accurate), in the end what holds the film together is the romance between George and Libby Custer, from their first meeting at West Point through a humorous courtship and a loving, sometimes difficult marriage to their final, heartbreaking separation on the eve of the Little Big Horn.  This was the last of Errol and Olivia’s eight films together, as Olivia was anxious to move on to other things.  In a weird nexus of fact and fiction, their characters’ goodbye scene was the last scene the stars ever filmed together, and it’s hard not to read extra layers into it: it was “meta” before “meta” was a thing.

Errol as Custer puts on a brave face as he heads out on a mission he knows he’ll never return from, while Olivia as Libby plays the role of dutiful wife to the end, equally certain of what’s ahead but knowing her husband needs her to be brave one last time.  It’s a masterful performance of a great script, where what’s not said is as important as what is.  Again, it has a “meta” feel to it, as the stars say goodbye to each other through scripted lines, speaking as other people.  Legend has it that even decades later, Olivia had to excuse herself from a screening of the film as this scene approached, unable to watch it without breaking down.  I can sympathize; I never get through it with a dry eye, either.

104 years is a great run, but there are certain folks you dread to read that last headline about, even though all logic tells you it’s coming.   There was a certain comfort knowing that somewhere out there (usually France) was a living link to the Golden Age of film, the girl who inspired heroes to great deeds and the woman who struck bold blows, herself.  Plus, it was an odd kind of fun, crushing on a centenarian.  Godspeed, Dame Olivia, and thanks.  

Moonraker at 40

You’ve doubtless heard this summer marks a major anniversary of mankind’s greatest adventure in space.  That’s right, it’s been 40 years since the theatrical release of the James Bond film, Moonraker.

In 1979, this celluloid masterpiece landed amid a wasteland of lackluster films like Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Alien, The China Syndrome, Breaking Away and Being There to deliver two breathless hours of what producer Cubby Broccoli called “not science fiction, but science fact.” For instance, there’s the little-known scientific fact that human beings can fall from airplanes onto circus tents without injury, or the even lesser known fact that the US government maintains a highly trained force of Space Marines, just in case a rival power ever decides to stage a skirmish in Earth orbit using handheld weapons.

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Marking Roger Moore’s fourth mission as 007, Moonraker launched in the UK on June 26 and splashed down in the States three days later.  I’m not sure how long after that I climbed into a theater seat to watch it, but it couldn’t have been long.  At that point I was at the ultimate peak of my Bond fandom, having devoured Ian Fleming’s novels and rejoiced whenever a vintage Bond film aired on the ABC Sunday Night Movie (which wasn’t nearly often enough).  It’s been said, somewhere, that 14 is the optimum age to be a Bond fan, and while I can’t say if that’s true for the world at large, it certainly was in my case.   For me, the summer of ’79 was all about Bond: Moonraker ads on the TV, bubblegum cards and magazines at the convenience store and the soundtrack album on my stereo.

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I wasn’t alone, either: the film did phenomenal box office in ’79, becoming the biggest money-maker in the franchise’s history to that point and holding the record for a whopping 16 years until dethroned by Goldeneye.  Critics were divided — nothing new for Bonds — but many of them loved it, with some rating it second only to Goldfinger.  Suffice to say the tables turned in the years that followed, with self-appointed Bond “historians” usually denigrating the entire enterprise as a childish, idiotic parody of everything a James Bond movie is supposed to be.  In time, their word would become gospel, and Moonraker took on the mantle of “series low point.”

However, the pendulum of opinion has a way of swinging back again if you live long enough, and the film has come in for a lot of love in recent years.  Partly that could be due to newfound affection for the late great Roger Moore, partly it could be a certain nostalgia for “silly” Bonds after the relentlessly grim Daniel Craig era or it could just be that after all this time we can see the film for what it was: harmless fun.  In 1979, Bond purists saw it not just as a bad movie, but as a disastrous wrong turn for the series that, given its financial success, could have defined the tone of Bonds for years to follow.  As it turns out, four decades later we can see it as just another temporary excursion down an interesting side road.

There’s no denying Moonraker gave us some cringe-worthy moments, like the infamous scene where Bond, in Venice, converts his gondola into a hovercraft and drives it through astonished crowds in St Mark’s Square, pretty effectively torpedoing the very notion of a “secret” agent. And just in case there was any danger of the humor here coming off as too subtle, there’s an insert of a pigeon doing a startled double-take in disbelief.

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Throughout the film, the seemingly invulnerable villain Jaws plays Wile E Coyote to Bond’s Roadrunner, tumbling from airplanes and mountains and waterfalls to seemingly certain death, only to emerge unscathed, brushing himself off to resume the chase…until he finds true love and defects to the side of right and virtue.  And of course, we cap everything off with armies of astronauts shooting lasers at each other while floating  in Earth orbit.  So yeah, it’s not exactly cinema verite.

And yet at the same time, the film has some very suspenseful — and decidedly dark — moments.  The scene where Bond is nearly crushed to paste in a centrifuge offers a rare dose of genuine suspense for this stage of the series, and at one point an ally is chased down and killed by dogs in a scene that’s somehow terrifying and beautiful all at once.

From a technical standpoint, Moonraker remains impressive.  For John Barry, easily the best composer to work on the series, the score marks a turning point between his bombastic, brass-heavy works in the earlier Bonds and the more lush, string-heavy arrangements he’d bring to films like Out of Africa, Somewhere in Time and Body Heat.  Sir Ken Adams’ sets, always phenomenal, are at their biggest and most impressive here, from villain Drax’s “mission control” hidden in a South American pyramid to his orbiting space station.  Derek Meddings’ model work, building on years of experience gained on shows like Thunderbirds and UFO, makes the space shuttle scenes totally convincing (the launch of the real-life shuttle ended up being delayed until a few years later, but Medding’s faux launches still look convincing even after we’ve seen the real thing).  Working together, they take a seemingly ridiculous notion — James Bond in space — and make it almost seem plausible.

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Probably my single favorite promotional art from a series filled with great promotional art is Daniel Gouzee’s teaser poster, showing Roger Moore as Bond orbiting Earth in a space suit in the traditional gun-across-the-chest pose.  Yes, there’s the troublesome matter of Bond going helmet-less in the vacuum of space, but in a way it only adds to the wacky charm of the whole enterprise.  I was lucky enough to score a clean, unfolded version of this poster for a song in the early days of eBay, and it occupies a place of honor on my media room wall.

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Roger himself is at the top of his game here, suave and cool, utterly unflappable and impossibly handsome.  At the halfway point in his tenure as Bond, he’s relaxed and at ease throughout.  If Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (!) and Michael Lonsdale as Drax aren’t the best Bond girl and villain in the series, they’re also far from the worst.  The “office team” is intact one last time, with Bernard Lee making his last appearance as M before his unfortunate demise.

Anyway, I couldn’t let the anniversary of this epic theater-going experience pass without mention.  Whatever its weaknesses, this was the last of the truly BIG Bonds, with a massive supervillain lair, opulent locations in glorious widescreen vistas, over-the-top stuntwork and the whole nine yards.  The next film, For Your Eyes Only, would deliberately downscale everything in a bid to return to more serious fare (and to save money, no doubt).  The films that followed, whether with Moore or his three successors — and despite ballooning budgets — never felt as grandiose again.

I used to say the Bond films were to moviegoers what Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had been to turn-of-the-century audiences: Every couple of years, and with much fanfare, the big show would roll into sleepy small towns like mine and present sights and sounds we could never see otherwise; a wild parade of larger-than-life characters doing extraordinary things against a fantastic landscape that never really existed, but should have.  It was loud and flashy and exciting with a charismatic ringmaster at center stage as our host and guide. I still enjoy the ongoing Bond series for all sorts of reasons, but that kind of thrill left the proceedings a long time ago, for me.  That’s why as nutty and stupid as it can be in spots, I’ll always come back to enjoy Moonraker, from its amazing pre-credits fight shot in high-altitude freefall to the end credits, which appropriately enough roll past to a disco tune.

This then is my tip of the EVA helmet to Moonraker on its 40th, and to Cubby Broccoli, Lewis Gilbert, Ken Adam, Roger Moore, John Barry, Derek Meddings, Maurice Binder, Richard Kiel, Bob Simmons, Richard Graydon, Desmond Llewelyn, Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee and all the other participants who’ve taken that last giant leap into the Great Beyond.

Inglourious Federation Basterds

As a lifelong Star Trek fan, I’ve enjoyed a long tradition and it’s time to revisit it today.  The tradition goes like this:  I look at the current state of Star Trek and say, “Paramount can’t possibly screw this up any worse than they have!”  And Paramount responds, “Wanna BET?”

Now they’ve outdone themselves, tapping Quentin Tarantino (!) to direct the next Trek movie and erase any lingering vestiges of what the property once represented.  But at least we get this awesome fan trailer, which is likely as close as I’ll get to seeing the film:

Remembering Roger Moore

rog-laldI’ve been taking the death of Roger Moore pretty hard, considering I never met the guy.  But after all, he’s been a part of my life as far back as I can remember.  Basically, he was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

As an awkward, buck-toothed beanpole of a kid living in a succession of middle-of-nowhere small towns, I was completely in awe of  this impossibly handsome, witty and sophisticated jet-setter who got to do the coolest things in the most wonderful places with the most interesting people in the world.  Early on, I decided that was the life for me.  If my off-the-rack Sears Toughskin leisure suits were no match for Roger’s bespoke creations from Cyril Castle or Douglas Hayward, and our Country Squire station wagon was a far cry from a Lotus Esprit, at least I could manage an approximation of Roger’s hairstyle, and after hours of practice in front of the mirror, raise one eyebrow at a time.

Looking back, I wonder if I could sense somehow that the “Roger Moore” I beheld was himself a construct, the invention of an insecure, pudgy and often sickly kid from  working class South London who grew up idolizing screen heroes like Stewart Granger and David Niven with dreams of following in their footsteps.  Young Roger George Moore taught himself to speak with a precise and measured upper-class accent and comport himself with the manners and grace of a true English gentleman, to the point where it was hard to imagine him not having been born into the peerage.  No one batted an eyelash when he played a full-fledged English Lord in The Persuaders, and when he was eventually knighted in real life, it seemed a logical development.  Even before I knew his biography, his carefully constructed public persona inspired my efforts to mimic the traits I most admired: an unflappable sang-froid under even the most stressful conditions, an air of class that never strayed to snobbery, pride in appearance that stopped short of vanity, the ability to weather reversals with humor and elan, to succeed by wit and wisdom where muscle was not sufficient.

Obviously, I tended to blur the lines between Roger Moore and James Bond since I knew the latter better than the former, but the great thing was that when Roger showed up on talk shows or interviews, he was a match for his fictional roles; dressed to the nines, debonair, cultured, witty and charismatic.  For me, Roger Moore WAS James Bond and vice-versa. Critics would dismiss his performances as not “acting” at all, saying he was just being himself.  Oddly, they seemed to be suggesting that was a bad thing.  Personally, I cherished the notion that somewhere out there in the “real” world was a guy every bit as cool as he seemed on screen.

bond-anyaSome have complained that Roger’s version of 007 was too unflappable, too flippant about the chaos exploding around him, but for me, this was the whole point of Classic Bond, the foundation of his portrayal: Roger’s Bond wasn’t immune to fear or pain, but he worked to remain their master.  His seeming indifference to danger was the key to surviving perils where indulging in panic meant courting death, and more than that was a strategy designed to drive his opponents nuts.  He remained nonplussed by their efforts to intimidate him, bored with their demonstrations of strength, bemused by their grandiose speeches, because he refused to grant them the satisfaction of knowing they were getting to him.

There are, if you look for them, plenty of moments when panic threatens to take hold, when Roger’s Bond realizes he’s in the soup and he’d better think fast:  Trapped on a tiny island surrounded by hungry alligators, clinging precariously to the side of a mountain as a villain kicks away the pitons holding him up, spinning to seeming doom in an out-of-control centrifuge.  In For Your Eyes Only, he’s tied to girlfriend du jour Melina as a motorboat prepares to pull them across a coral reef and tear them to shreds.  “I didn’t think it would end like this,” says Melina.  Looking her in the eyes, he answers calmly, “We’re not dead yet.”  With only the girl to hear him, and no villains to impress, he shows what’s at his core, not flippant disinterest but the dogged determination that he WILL, he MUST survive, or that if he must die, he’ll at least not give the enemy the satisfaction of breaking him.  This was old school, stiff-upper-lip English hero stuff, and I ate it up.

As a kid, it irritated me when adults said, “I liked him better as The Saint.”  I hadn’t seen The Saint at that point, but I knew it was a TV show, so the clear implications were that (1) no matter what Roger did, Sean Connery would always be better, and (2), Roger’s talents might have been good enough for TV, but he was clearly out of his depth in movies.  Eventually I did get to “meet” Simon Templar and I realized those old folks may have been on to something: I found that on the whole I liked Roger better as the Saint than I liked anyone as James Bond.  Where Bond was largely amoral and professional about his job (which was, in the end, to kill people), Templar was motivated by a strong personal sense of right and wrong (if not strict adherence to the law).  Bond was, for all his glamorous trappings, a glorified civil servant who had to show up at the office in the morning and take orders from a boss.  Templar was a “free agent” who went where he pleased and involved himself in cases when he felt like it, and for his own reasons.  That archetype of the hero motivated by a personal sense of right and wrong as opposed to patriotic duty was a better fit for Moore, more comfortable as the “knight errant” than the “blunt instrument” of a government agency.

When he transitioned from Templar to Bond, Roger brought along this sense of moral authority, the sense that he is in the game to right wrongs and deal evil-doers their just desserts.  It’s not a motivation that particularly applied to Connery’s Bond, who just did what he was assigned as ruthlessly as required, not because it was “right” or “justified,” but because it was his job.  It also doesn’t apply to Daniel Craig’s current take on 007, who we sense would just be out killing someone else if he wasn’t killing bad guys.  More so than any of the other Bonds, Moore’s is a “crusader,” an approach that plays to Roger’s strengths as a performer even though at times it runs counter to what the character’s about.  Sometimes it helps a scene, as when he kicks a killer’s car off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only  (we know he deserves it) but sometimes it doesn’t, as when the script for Man With The Golden Gun has him slapping around Maud Adams; with Connery, it might have worked, but when Roger does it, he seems caddish and cowardly.  Later in Golden Gun, the high-priced hitman Scaramanga compares himself to Bond and touches a nerve: “When I kill,” Roger-Bond responds icily, “it’s on the orders of Her Majesty’s government, and those I kill are themselves killers.”  It’s a rare and odd moment of Bond trying to justify what he does for a living, and it’s hard to imagine Connery’s Bond offering the same defense.

Over the course of Roger’s 12-year tenure, Bond morphs to fit Moore’s screen persona as much as, or more than, Roger conforms to the Bond template, until, by the end, he’s chivalrously hanging from airplanes and blimps to rescue damsels in distress.  With Roger at the wheel, the role is incrementally steered away from “ruthless assassin” to something closer to “white knight.” Fandom remains divided over whether that’s a good thing.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and by the time of A View To A Kill in 1985, even I was ready for Roger to move on.  Unfortunately, what he went on to was a series of progressively awful films until he pretty much threw in the towel on acting, but on the up side that left him free to devote his time to his charity work as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, championing the cause of underprivileged children around the world and becoming at last a hero in real life, as well.

Often mocked — sometimes not so gently — for being such a powerful avatar of the 70s, with its outlandish fashions, fatuous pursuits and general goofiness, over time Sir Roger became something of a national treasure in the UK.  When Timothy Dalton succeeded him as Bond, many fans were eager to embrace a more serious approach to 007, and it was easy to put down Roger for the same things that had sold all those tickets just a few years before.  But the further his era slips into the past, the more fondly it seems to be remembered.  It’s difficult to look at where the series is today, under the often grim and intensely physical Daniel Craig, and draw a through-line to Moore’s Bond, but certain vestiges remain.  If anything, his legacy is more obvious in non-Bond films like Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible series or The Kingsman films with their over-the-top sensibilities and lack of pretension.  I’d say if any franchise approximates what the Moore era was to Young Me, it’s Marvel’s superhero films, with their emphasis on dazzling spectacle, their embrace of humor, and their skill at transporting audiences to impossible but engaging worlds for a couple hours of pure, unapologetic escapism.

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This has turned out to be a ridiculously long post, but like I said Roger meant a lot to me, even at a distance.  I’m fast running out of childhood heroes and Roger was at the top of the list.  Given the shenanigans most celebrities are prone to, it was great to have a hero who only ever went up in my estimation, never down.

In closing, I like to remember Roger in a scene from Vendetta for the Saint, one of the best stories from the series and one of two adapted for theatrical release. Near the middle of the film, Simon Templar is being manhandled by mob enforcers at the behest of a dying Mafia don, who’s just ordered his execution. The expiring villain says, “Goodbye, Simon Templar.  We will never meet again.”  “I know,” answers Simon, glancing heavenward with a wry smile.  “I’m going that way.”

Godspeed, Sir Roger, and thanks.  May your halo never droop.

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Dr Strange on the big screen

Last month I got got to see my personal “most anticipated” Marvel film: Dr Strange.  The good doctor has always been my favorite Marvel character, and while I don’t know if I’d call this entry my favorite Marvel film, I was very pleased with it, overall.

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First up, I knew we were in good shape when Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Strange.  Everything I’ve ever seen this guy in has been great, and he’s proven with Sherlock and The Imitation Game that he can do the “super-intelligent oddball” routine very well (if you’re going to be typecast, there are worse labels to bear than “smartest guy in the room.”)  He didn’t disappoint, and the rest of the cast was terrific, as well.  Beyond that, the special effects were fantastic, as well as the music (Michael Giacchino is probably my favorite film composer working today), so I have few complaints.

There’s been criticism from some quarters that the script is too derivative of earlier Marvel entries, which I anticipated, but actually the reverse is true.  The first thing I said to Laura when we came out of the first Iron Man film was “they stole the origin from Dr Strange,” by which I meant “super-talented but selfish, arrogant jerk redeems himself through heroic acts.”  In the comics, Tony Stark was a millionaire genius inventor, yes, but — at least in the early days — he wasn’t presented as a self-centered jackass.  Yes, he made his fortune from munitions, but in the early, Commie-bashing Marvel Age, that was presented a virtue, not a sign of moral compromise.  The movie’s presentation of Tony as a tragic figure with boundless creative potential yet locked in a tragic cycle of bad behavior, scandal and substance abuse was NOT a feature of the comics; it was a meta-textual nod to the real life story of star Robert Downey, Jr.  As much as Downey became Iron Man, with that film Iron Man became Downey.

Having proven a box-office winner, Iron Man went on to…let’s say “inspire”…other super-hero films, like “Green Lantern” and “The Green Hornet,” both featuring selfish, immature jerks who fall more or less sideways into heroism in spite of themselves, even though this formula runs entirely counter to how either character was portrayed in their decades-long histories in other media.

In the comics, it was Stephen Strange who was the self-absorbed jerk who for all his talent as a surgeon was falling far short of his potential as a human being.  Obsessed with fame and fortune, he refused to help patients who couldn’t afford his fees, or to contribute to any efforts that might advance medicine unless they were sure to increase his personal fame.  After a truly life-changing experience, he ends up at the extreme opposite end of things: dedicated to the welfare of all mankind at great personal risk to himself, and with no hope of recognition or reward. (Since he battles threats mankind must never perceive, to reveal his victories would, in effect, reverse them.)

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The movie did a pretty good job of portraying this, I guess.  It’s established from the start that he’s a brilliant surgeon, but it’s not until the last few moments before Strange’s fateful accident that we see he’s only willing to take on the “glory” jobs (later reinforced in a scene with Benjamin Bratt as a would-be patient once rejected by Strange).  Certainly he turns into a Class-A creep after the accident, driving away the woman who loves him (Rachel McAdams as Dr Christine Palmer) in his prolonged spiral into bitterness and self-pity. For me the pay-off comes late in the film, when Strange and The Ancient One converse in their astral forms and The Ancient One tells him that for all he’s learned, he’s still missed the most important lesson of all: “It’s not about you.”  This was the moment where I thought, “Yes.  This film gets it.”

I will admit, though, that the efforts to cast Strange in the “smart ass” mold were only partially successful, not really true to the character and not the best idea unless you want to invite comparisons to RDJ, who can never be beaten at his own game.  I also didn’t appreciate the couple instances of foul language in the film, especially from Strange himself.  I like to think I’m not prudish, but in a film with obvious appeal to kids, and which is on the whole far more accessible to and appropriate for young audience than any of DC’s sick efforts, these moments were jarring and unwelcome.

But let’s focus on what they got right.  One thing I always dug about Strange was that he operates in his own little corner of the Marvel Universe, with whole worlds and dimensions to explore on his own without running into other superheroes all the time or crossing over into company-wide “event” stories.  Both readers and Marvel accountants alike always loved the way Spider-Man was running into Daredevil, or the Hulk was trading punches with The Thing, because it meant in order to really enjoy your favorite book you had to know what was going on with the rest of Marvel, and every now and then if you wanted to see the end of your Avengers story, you had to buy an issue or two of The Defenders, or whatever.  I never dug that, partly because I frankly considered some Marvel characters nowhere near as good as others, or as deserving of my change, but also because I grew up in the boonies where I was lucky to find two consecutive issues of any title on the spindle rack, much less the entire Marvel line.  Due to his nature, Dr Strange could usually be counted on to star in self-contained storylines in his own little sandbox, and that’s carried over into the film, which despite a few Easter eggs and call-outs to other characters is not at all dependent on the rest of the MCU to work.

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Second, I always enjoyed Strange’s trippy sojourns to other dimensions, as first imagined by artist/creator Steve Ditko and later by such talented illustrators as Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, Marshall Rogers, Paul Smith, etc. Again, the film does a great job of this with its take on The Dark Dimension, home of the Dread Dormammu. Like Ditko’s original, it’s a topsy-turvy dimension full of weird, seemingly organic structures, including orbs connected by creepy tendrils. Laura mentioned that they looked like neurons and dendrites, which I confess never occurred to me but, if intentional, makes wonderful sense in a film about a superhero neurosurgeon.

Also great fun are scenes that fold reality in on itself like a sort of origami-on-LSD. Rooms, buildings, streets, whole vistas are twisted sideways and upside down in kaleidoscopic fashion, lending an Escher-like quality to several battle scenes.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

Then, there’s a third effect at the end of the film as Strange invokes a time-reversing spell that causes everything and everyone to move backwards except the principal characters, all sorcerers engaged in half-magical, half-martial arts combat.

Throughout all this, bystanders go on about their lives unaware of what’s happening under their noses, which checks off another item from my wishlist. In the comics, Dr Strange conducts his battles above, below, around and through the forms of mortals who are oblivious to these goings-on, and the stakes involved. Besides just being a cool concept in general (who’s to say what’s going on right now on a plane we can’t see?) this also gets us past the thorny issue of collateral damage in superhero movie throw-downs, an issue which has caused some controversy in several films, including casting a pall over “Man of Steel” that more or less powered the entire plot of Batman v. Superman (about which the less said, the better). Dr Strange finds a way to have its cake and eat it, too, giving audiences the big-budget effects they’ve paid for, but without inviting the “disaster porn” label.

Waaaaaay back in the 70s, I watched the original Dr Strange TV movie with high hopes that came to naught. There, we got a permed Stephen Strange with a bland costume and cheapo special effects. It took four decades, but at last we’ve got something awfully darned close to the movie I was hoping for, with the Cloak of Levitation, the Eye of Agamotto, the Sanctum Sanctorum, Dormammu, Mordo and Wong, so I’m happy. With the success of this film and before it The Guardians of the Galaxy, we can now hope for all kinds of Marvel B-listers to have their day in the sun, and that’s awesome. Especially since after all this time, the only thing DC’s had any luck with is still Batman.

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