Friday, November 11, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

I saw Marvel's Doctor Strange last weekend. With its focus on magic, astral projection, and alternate dimensions, I figured it would be visually impressive and might deviate from the usual, standardized Marvel movie look and feel. On that front I was pleased; despite its obvious visual redundancies with Batman Begins and Inception, I basically enjoyed Doctor Strange, especially visually. However, I found its Euro-American imperialism and white-male-centeredness to be so bald-faced as to be, at times, unfavorably distracting.

This is not new news -- well in advance of Doctor Strange's release, many commentators expressed concern over the whitewashing of Doctor Strange's the Ancient One, that is, casting a white woman to play a role established in the comics as Tibetan. Sadly, the film's Orientalism runs even deeper than Tilda Swinton's casting. As Charles Pulliam-Moore writes in his essential and insightful article about Doctor Strange the character,
While no reference is made to Strange’s race or ethnicity in his early stories, he’s consistently drawn with slanted eyes and dramatic, convex eyebrows . . . to argue that Strange was always white is to willfully ignore the visual language that comics use to tell their stories.
Pulliam-Moore concludes that "There’s no reason that this character has to be white and if canon is really as important as hostile fanboys make it out to be, then Strange should have simply been portrayed by an Asian actor." That is hard to imagine in today's Hollywood, but it's a compelling idea and a missed opportunity to diversify (rather than further whitewash) the MCU.

The Hollywood Reporter's Graeme McMillan notes that "the Ancient One role really could've/probably should've gone to an Asian actor" and much as I love Swinton, I must agree. Making the Ancient One white is an act of racism, just like Christopher Nolan's revealing the "real" Ra's al Ghul to be white in Batman Begins. This shit really needs to stop, as do the disingenuous, economically motivated protests of innocence

The other weird racial thing going on that Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo is yet another magical negro of the Morpheus variety here to assist and mentor his white Neo-figure to world fame. Interesting to note -- my girlfriend spotted this -- that the only other time Ejiofor and Strange star Benedict Cumberbatch appear onscreen together is as slave and master in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Yikes!

Further orientalizing Doctor Strange is its climactic third act battle, which takes place in Hong Kong, depicted, like Beijing in the Transformers 4 finale, in a mode I call "developing nation poverty porn." I knew we were in trouble as soon as one of the sorcerers training Strange revealed that the three magic portals in their Tibetan base lead to London, New York, and Hong Kong. "In these three cities lie the strongest concentrations of magical energy on Earth or whatever," explains Wong (Benedict Wong). I instantly noticed that these cities are the seat of the British Empire, the seat of the American Empire, and one of the greatest Asian colonies England ever possessed. Hubs of global commerce that speak more to the politics of the real world this minute than they do any narratively explicable layout of magical lay lines. Why do globally significant events only ever happen in the same four or five highly developed world cities in movies?

Of course, I know the real-world answer: money. Global box office. China and East Asia are huge market these days, so influential they can prevent some domestic "flops" from losing money, so by featuring Hong Kong in the climactic sequence and giving sorcerer Wong some of the movie's goddamn funniest lines, Disney (who owns and runs Marvel Studios) hopes to draw in that audience. But these are token gestures -- delightful though it is, Wong's speaking part is quite small, and Doctor Strange is a story about an American white man who learns magic from a Tibetan white woman and uses his newfound powers to defeat another white man.*

Doctor Strange also hedges its financial bets by going mainly where other popular movies have gone before. Its Tibetan mise-en-scene (especially the Kamar-Taj training facility) is identical to that seen in the first act of Batman Begins (2005), and the movie's overall look and visual effects bear striking similarities to Inception -- the sorcery in Strange is basically the same as the dreaming sequences in Inception.** Buildings and landscapes bend and warp, gravity and orientation flips around constantly, character walk (and run, and chase, and fight) on walls and ceilings, and then they use special rings to "wake up" and transport back to their home dimension (or elsewhere). I am not the only critic to notice Doctor Strange's highly derivative visuals.

"Hi, I'm Ducard -- I mean, the Ancient One -- dang, I mean, Ra's al Ghul."

That said, I appreciate that Doctor Strange keeps the number of principal characters low so we are able to (at least minimally) care about each the participants. Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius is a bit boilerplate, and his followers just anonymous goons without personalities, but the main "good guys" are fairly distinct and generally likeable. And it is fun to see effects like these and characters like these in a Marvel film, making jokes and having a good time (not usually Nolan's strong suit).

Sadly, Rachel McAdams' Christine is hardly worth mentioning because she is given so little to do in the movie. As Stephen Strange's medical colleague and ambiguously not-quite-love interest, Christine's main job is to stand around gawking amazedly once the titular doctor starts manifesting his magical powers. She performs one crucial surgery, but even then she is being directed by Strange himself. Like Natalie Portman in Thor, she is essentially a "babe scientist" who cannot influence events in the movie since
The extermination of the threat depends not upon scientific knowledge, which the babe scientist has in spades, but rather on brute physical force -- quick reflexes, and combat skills, characteristics only male protagonists possess.†
McAdams' Christine represents a variation on this formula since her medical prowess is found wanting next to Stephen Strange's magical powers rather than his raw brawn -- though magic in this universe seems to be used mainly for manipulating physical reality and for sorcerers to blast and stab each other with. That is, it could aptly be called "brute magical force" and substituted into the above quotation. Thus, Christine is yet another example of a female sidekick character who starts out seeming narratively significant but who is shoved into the background by the film's last act.

Christine sez: "Don't mind me, I'm just here to make you look more awesome." 

There are no other significant female characters in Doctor Strange besides the gender-ambiguous Ancient One played by Tilda Swinton.

David Palmer's well-written Doctor Strange review convincingly exposes several plot and character-development problems that ruin the film for him. I didn't mind these problems so much because I wasn't that deeply invested in the film or its characters to begin with. My expectations for Marvel Studios films aren't high these days so this was a low-stakes game for me and I got my entertainment dollar's worth out of Doctor Strange.

Palmer writes near the end of the review that his distaste for Doctor Strange aligns with his preference for what he terms Marvel's more "ambitious" films, by which he means Captain America: Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron. Curious though I am about James Spader as the (voice of the) villain, I am not interested in the superhero movie-as-baroque clusterfuck that Ultron is rumored to be.   

So I guess I don't really like the "ambitious" Marvel movies, but then again I don't see Winter Soldier as being very ambitious, just well-scripted and well-made. It's like the first Bourne movie: it strikes a very good downbeat tone and introduces a lived-in, contemporary-feeling world in which "the Captain's very goodness has given him the edge of an antihero," as Owen Gleiberman puts it. I agree with Gleiberman's and Peter Debruge's comments on their Variety ranking of the first fourteen Marvel Cinematic Universe movies (including Doctor Strange), for while I haven't seen enough MCU films to weigh in on their whole list, I surely agree with their top five picks: AvengersIron ManCaptain America: Winter SoldierDoctor Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

As for Doctor Strange, I did enjoy it as entertainment. I would probably watch it again just to see the world-bendy visuals, enjoy the jokes, and see Mads Mikkelsen threaten Benedict Cumberbatch while wearing weird eye makeup. Strange's spectacular visuals and lively performances raise it a wee bit above the usual predictability of MCU films these days. However, despite its fine execution, Doctor Strange is not really all that innovative in any way, and certainly continues Marvel's / Hollywood's traditions of racism (see this and this), sexism (see this, thisthis, and this), and, of course, pro-American imperialism. I didn't expect the film to surprise me on these fronts but I do feel, as other critics and advocacy groups do, that there was a missed opportunity here.

* Whiteys still get all the plum roles in Hollywood because the domestic U.S. market is still quite crucial, especially in creating an initial perception of (the economic viability of) the film. White stars and actors also benefit (relative to, say, Asian ones) from the global economic and cultural dominance of Hollywood since the early twentieth century -- due to Hollywood's economic leverage, and through sheer momentum, whiteness continues to sell well worldwide.
** Of course, Inception itself borrows most of its visual ideas from the superior anime film Paprika (2006), which I highly recommend.
† Holly Hassel, "The 'Babe Scientist' Phenomenon" in Chick Flicks (Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young, Routledge 2008) p. 196.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015)

Distributed by Netflix as an eight-episode limited series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is a delightfully funny romp that gently parodies teen summer camp movies of the 1980s. It's also a prequel to the cult classic film Wet Hot American Summer (2001), written and directed by David Wain and Michael Showalter, who also co-helm the series.

It is hard for me to judge this film and follow-up prequel series with any pretense at objectivity. As a teen of the 1980s, I grew up on John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985) and raunchy teen comedies like Animal House, Meatballs (both 1979) and Porky's (1981) that the Wet Hot franchise so lovingly and wittily spoofs. I am the perfect target audience for Wain and Showalter's creations and enjoy both the film and show enormously.

What makes this series (and the original film) most special is its dynamite troupe of actors. What a treat it is to see the film's stellar cast -- Marguerite Moreau, Janeane Garofalo, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Christopher Meloni, Molly Shannon, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Michael Ian Black, Zak Orth, David Hyde Pierce, Ken Marino, and Joe Lo Truglio -- back together and doing their knowingly over-the-top thing again. Like its filmic predecessor, First Day of Camp intentionally camps it up (ha, ha), perfectly executing its warm yet ribald tone due to the earnestness with which it commits to the cliches of 80's teen movies. As other reviewers have noted, the prequel series is at least as funny as the 2001 film, so if you like the one, you should like the other.


One of the greatest pleasures to be had watching the new Wet Hot prequels is how amusingly they play with the experienced viewer's expectations of what comes "next" in the original movie. The best example of this is the revelation that Gail's ex- ex- husband "Jonas," presumably just a random name given to a character we never see in the original film, is revealed in the prequels to be the former name of Gene (Meloni), Camp Firewood's lunatic camp cook. Indeed, Jonas/Gene's storyline is one of the best parts of the prequel series, involving as it does Gene's military past and an amazing climactic showdown with The Falcon, Ronald Reagan's assassin (Jon Hamm).

Newcomers Jason Schwartzman, John Slattery, Lake Bell, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, and Michael Cera all add much zaniness to the proceedings, with Schwartzman's Greg and Hamm's Falcon particular standouts. However, the heart of the series lies more so with old favorites like Beth (Garofalo), Katie (Moreau), Andy (Rudd), and Coop (Showalter). Of special note is the work of Elizabeth Banks, a comedienne I have long felt is somewhat under-deployed in many of her film appearances (e.g., The 40 Year Old Virgin, Role Models). I find Banks' work, especially in these Wet Hot prequels, hilarious. Lindsay's introduction in the cold open of episode 3 is a series high point -- really spot-on, campy stuff. I am quite pleased that the prequel series gives Lindsay (and Banks) more of a central role than the original film does.

In this same vein, First Day of Camp gives us back the Paul Rudd we know and love from comedies like CluelessForgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man, and Role Models: the dimwitted fuckup with the heart of gold. Laughing at him chew scenery as disaffected slacker Andy is one of the great pleasures of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Paul Rudd belongs in comedy.*

One could surely watch and enjoy the prequel series without having seen the original film. Still, one of the most pleasurable aspects of the series is how it sets up certain jokes in the film, giving them whole new layers of meaning. For example, when Beth is nervous in front of Henry the first time she meets him in the film, she offers an excuse about needing to meet "Jim Stansel," surely a throwaway name when first written and uttered. Yet the prequels bring Stansel to life and depict his dramatic exit from the series, making Beth's excuse extra-funny in retrospect. Another moment that is given additional weight by the existence of the prequels is Victor admitting to Neil he's a virgin near the end of the movie -- having seen his earlier braggadocio, this moment is even more meaningful now.

While less entertaining than the antics of the older counselors, the prequel series' (younger camper) Kevin storyline foreshadows Coop's in the film: each awkward guy ultimately fails to win the affection of a popular girl he desires. These two story arcs accurately deconstruct the fantasy of geeky men attracting women vastly out of their league --  a pernicious and damaging trope that haunts much geek-centered cinema.

I find the whole Wet Hot prequel series to be of roughly equal quality, but Episode 3 "Activities" reveals Lindsay's background and introduces a hilarious Chris Pine as has-been rocker Eric. Next to the Jonas/Gene origin story, I think the Lindsay - Eric arc is the next best in the series. The very soul of the camp is at stake, and it takes these two relative outsiders to save everyone in the end. Along the way, the show has lots of fun sending up Pine's overwrought rocker persona and playing to the hilt Lindsay's obsession with the man and his unfinished masterpiece. (More on that shortly.)

The next episode, "Auditions," is really top-notch as well, and in some ways this is where the series really gets rolling. We meet a key antagonist, the Falcon (Hamm), whose scenes are brilliant send-ups of 1980s spy thrillers like War Games (1983). Sorry Mad Men fans --  Jon Hamm is another guy I enjoy most in comedies. I believe this is also the first of two appearances by Showalter in a cameo as President Ronald Reagan. As a youth of the Reagan era I appreciate his take, and I like how the Reagan cameo "rhymes" with Showalter's appearance as talent show emcee Alan Shemper in the 2001 movie.

Susie and Claude share an intimate moment. 

Episode 5 "Dinner" parodies slasher horror (especially in JJ and Lindsay's adventure to the spooky abandoned cabin) and some action movie Rambo-ish business with Jonas versus Victor. Victor runs again! This episode also depicts Susie's tryst with Claude Dumet, a very amusing and well-handled situation somewhat reminiscent of Aaron and Gail's May - December relationship from the movie. Yet unline the Aaron - Gail pairing, the Susie - Claude romance does not lead to marriage and instead depicts Susie as a self-aware young woman making her own (somewhat taboo) choices.

Eps 6 and 7, "Electro/City" and "Staff Party" are, for me, most memorable for their wonderful depiction of the flowering of Ben and McKinley's relationship. As AV Club's Erik Adams says, Bradley Cooper’s most important scenes are with Michael Ian Black.

The Eric storyline culminates in an amazing rock finale in Episode 8 "End of Day," which concludes the series. Eric's show-stopping performance, an homage to similar teen-movie musical finales like those in Footloose and Revenge of the Nerds, is an amazing feat of earnest parody that provides an exciting climax for the series. Eric's performance of his musical magnum opus also reveals the source of the song we hear in the original film when Gene is training Coop -- it's "Higher and Higher":
Show me the fever / Into the fire / Takin' it higher and higher 
Nothing to fear / It's only desire / Takin' it higher and higher
Yeah! This is one of my favorite reveals of the whole series.

I'll conclude my review by saying spoiler-free that the final post-credits sequence of the eighth and final First Day of Camp episode is an absolutely perfect, emotionally satisfying way to end the episode and the series.

P.S. Great news, folks! Another entry in the Wet Hot American Summer franchise is on the way, an 8-episode sequel series set Ten Years Later.  

Neil sez: "Victor Pulak, you're okay by me!"

* Also deserving of mention are Rudd's turn as lamaze instructor Guy Gerricault in the late seasons of Reno 911! and his dramatic co-lead performance in Prince Avalanche. Despite my love of Paul Rudd, I do not enjoy the dumb, maddeningly boring Ant-Man (2015), a movie that half-assedly tries to be funny but fails.