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Posts Tagged ‘Chiwetel Ejiofor’

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

“DOCTOR STRANGE” My rating: B-

115 minutes |MPAA rating: PG-13

At this stage of the game Marvel movies have fallen into a predictable pattern, especially the third-act city-leveling smackdown (it’s like it’s guaranteed in the Constitution or something).

About two years ago I decided I was over the whole superhero thing. Unless, of course, you can show me something new.

“Dr. Strange” takes me halfway there, giving us a spell-casting protagonist who has more in common with Harry Potter than your usual Spandexed bicep bulger.

It’s got a solid first hour in which our ego-driven hero (see “Iron Man”) recognizes  the errors of his ways and gets his head turned around.

And a second hour in which a lot of shit gets blown up.

The wild card here is Benedict Cumberbatch, PBS’s current Sherlock and an actor of such range and integrity that I’m willing to give a chance to just about any project to which he lends his name.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a ground-breaking neurosurgeon. Even among his self-aggrandizing colleagues he’s noted as a self-serving asshole who peers down his aquiline nose at lesser mortals and lives the life of a solitary genius.  In the past he had a fling with surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), but his most enduring relationships are with his fancy sports car, plush apartment and his own self.

A highway accident leaves Strange with crushed paws. Unable to hold a scalpel, he sees  his life dripping away and goes on an international hunt for some sort of treatment that can reverse his physical infirmities.

Which is how he ends up in Katmandu in an esoteric school run by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, bald and looking like a visiting space alien).  The Ancient One and her lieutenant Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) put our hero through a physical and mental marathon, breaking down his sense of self, opening him up to life on the astral plane, and filling his head — and the screenplay — with enough metaphysical mumbo jumbo to make Scientology seem a viable option.

 

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triple-9-dom-195_192_T9_KA_R34_RV_3_W10_SL_rgb-e1444670190309“TRIPLE 9” My rating: C+

115 minutes |MPAA rating: R

John Hillcoat’s new crime thriller “Triple 9” is only slightly less apocalyptic than his film of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” And “The Road,” of course, was about the literal end of the world.

With a big cast of fine actors (few of whom, oddly, get to do much acting) and a sprawling urban canvas reminiscent of Michael Mann’s “Heat,” this is the story of one-time good guys who are now bad guys.

Terrell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell (Norman Reedus) are former military special forces types now earning a living planning big capers on behalf of the Russian mob.  As the film begins they’re pulling off a daring bank robbery that almost goes south (and leaves them covered in red dye) thanks to Russell’s loser brother, Gabe (Aaron Paul).

Chietol Ejiwifor

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Terrell and Russell are so effective at what they do because they have inside help. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (CliftonCollins Jr.) are police detectives gone rogue. They not only help in planning these crimes, they suit up to participate. And then they help the thieves cover their tracks.

To say that these guys lack a moral compass is an understatement. Matt Cook’s screenplay never asks why or how our protagonists were corrupted; certainly the characters aren’t into soul searching.

But the result is a taut film that feels weirdly uninhabited…as a viewer I’d be at least as interested in how these guys came to this low ethical state as I am in the mechanics of their heists.

Their saving grace is that as bad as they are, they aren’t as bad as the Russian crime tsarina Irina (Kate Winslet), who’s about as hard a lady as you could ever meet.  For this tough cookie pulling the teeth of a couple of miscreants, locking them  in a car trunk and setting the whole thing on fire is all in a day’s work.

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Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts

“SECRET IN THEIR EYES” My rating: C

111 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Some stories cannot be transplanted from one culture to another without losing much in the process.

Such is the case with “Secret in Their Eyes,” an American remake of an Argentine release which in 2010 won the Oscar for best foreign language film.

The story arcs of the two films are pretty much interchangeable. Both feature a chase through a packed sports stadium, and each ends with a head-spinning last-act revelation capable of inducing a tummy full of dread.

And yet the particulars are different enough that what worked magnificently in one version sputters and dies in the other.

This film from writer/director Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”) is presented as two interlocking stories taking place in two decades.

In the present former FBI agent (now he handles security for the New York Mets) Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) returns to his old haunts in Los Angeles to complete some unfinished business.

For 13 years Ray has been haunted by the murder of young Caroline Cobb, whose mother Jess (Julia Roberts) was a colleague and investigator for the L.A. District Attorney’s Office.

Ray and Jess were part of a task force looking for terrorist activity originating in a local mosque. The most likely murder suspect was a oddball young man and a member of that congregation.

But the D.A. (Alfred Molina) kept throwing roadblocks in front of the murder investigation. Eventually it was revealed that the suspect was a confidential informant reporting on activities at the mosque. Killer or not, the powers that be are kept him out of the legal system. Given the rampant paranoia after 9/11, they decided that preventing another terrorist attack trumps solving a young woman’s murder.

Despite lacking legal authorization or jurisdiction, Ray and Jess (Roberts has dowdied herself into near-unrecognizability) went after the suspect on their own. They were cautiously abetted by Claire (Nicole Kidman), a new prosecutor for whom Ray had (and continues to have) a raging case of unrequited love/lust.

But the suspect vanishes and the trail went cold.

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martianMV5BMTUxODUzMDY0NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDE0MDE5NTE@._V1__SX1377_SY911_“THE MARTIAN” My rating: A

141 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With “The Martian” director Ridley Scott and star Matt Damon deliver an almost perfect piece of popular filmmaking, an intimate sci-fi epic that is smart, spectacular and stirring.

This big screen adaptation (by screenwriter Drew Goddard) of Andy Weir’s best-seller about an astronaut stranded on Mars has just about everything — laughs, thrills, visual splendor and a rousing endorsement of the brotherhood of man.

It’s the least pretentious and most wholly enjoyable film of Scott’s extensive career (which includes  “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Gladiator”) and pushes Damon’s acting talents to the max.

The premise melds elements of 1964’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and “Apollo 13” (earthbound scientists and engineers invent ways to help their desperate colleague).

Matt Damon

Matt Damon

And nestled inside this riveting adventure is a sly commentary on bureaucracy.

Set in a near future in which the American space program is thriving (the film’s most patently fantastic assertion), “The Martian” opens on Mars, where a team led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is wrapping up a month-long scientific mission. A fierce sandstorm catches the astronauts out in the open, and they barely make it to the Martian lander that will return them to the orbiting mother ship.

But one of them, botanist Mark Watney (Damon), is literally blown away by the raging wind. Believing him dead, Lewis has no choice but to take off without him before the storm makes liftoff impossible.

But Mark isn’t dead. He awakens to a beeping alarm in his helmet telling him he’s almost out of air, struggles out of the sand in which he is half buried and discovers that he’s been skewered by a shard of wind-blown metal.

He barely makes it into the now unoccupied housing module where he performs a bit of surgery on himself and takes stock of his situation. (more…)

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Chris Pine, Margot Robie, DIDIDIDID

Chris Pine, Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor

“Z FOR ZACHARIAH”  My rating: B (Opens Aug. 28 at the Cinetopia)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

In a lush valley somewhere in Appalachia, a young woman lives alone. With her dog she hunts wild game. She grows vegetables using hand tools.

The valley is her entire world — not by choice but of necessity. In the wake of nuclear disaster that has left most of Earth too radioactive to sustain life, this few square miles somehow has clean air and water.

It’s a miracle.

At least that’s what Ann (Margot Robbie) thinks.  She’s lived here all her life with her father — a rural preacher — and a younger brother. But months ago the menfolk ventured forth to look for survivors beyond the valley. They’ve not returned. Probably won’t.

So when an outsider arrives, it’s cause for both celebration and concern.

Happily, John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) appears to be a pretty good guy. Reeling from radiation poisoning, he’s slow to regain his strength. He was a research engineer who survived the crisis in an underground government bunker.  But after months of claustrophobia he decided he’d rather take his chances on dying under a blue sky.

Written by Nissar Modi and directed by Craig Zobel (“Compliance”), “Z for Zachariah” is a quiet, reflective, tightly-wound post-apocalyptic tale which relies on sharp characterizations instead of special effects.

Ann and John are happy to have each other, but they are distinctly different individuals.  She’s religious (the film’s title refers a children’s Bible book, “A is for Adam,” that sits on her bookshelf) and while no dummy — the house is jammed with books — has only limited experience with the world beyond her homestead. She may very well be a virgin.

John, on the other hand, is a rationalist…either agnostic or atheist. His faith is in science and his own abilities. Soon he’s contemplating building a waterwheel-powered electric generator at the foot of a nearby waterfall.  Of course he’ll have to tear down the homey chapel in which Ann’s father used to preach.  They’ll need the wood for construction material.

But when they’re done he and Ann will have lights and an operating freezer in which to preserve food.

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Michael Fassbender
Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Chiwetel Ejiofor

“12 YEARS A SLAVE”  My rating: A  (Opens wide on Nov. 1)

133 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“12 Years a Slave” is gruelling.

Exhausting.

Horrifying.

It is, one can say without fear of contradiction, the best, most complex and fully-realized fictional film ever about American slavery.

Here the full panoply of institutional evil is on display, not just the physical abuse (whippings, chains, drudgery) but the emotional toll.

There have been other movies on the subject, but most have either been a whitewash (“Gone with the Wind,” which feels unwatchable in the wake of the gut-punch that is “12 Years…”) or the stuff of lurid exploitation (“Mandigo” and, yes, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”).

Steve McQueen’s film – based on the 1853 memoir of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery – manages to reference slavery’s many evils without feeling exploitative.

Moreover, it does something I’ve never before seen.  In addition to telling its story from a slave’s point of view, it is a devastating study of the corrosive influence of the “peculiar institution” on the lives of slaveholders themselves.

In 1841 Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lived in upstate New York with his wife and family.  A free Negro, he enjoyed the rights and privileges of any citizen. He was well liked and admired and made a good living as a musician.

Lured away with the promise of work on the road, he was drugged and awoke to find himself in chains in a dank cellar somewhere in Washington D.C.  (The still-unfinished Capitol building towers over the town, providing a silent but eloquently ironic commentary on Solomon’s situation.)

Like any free man, he indignantly protests his treatment — and is beaten for it. He learns to keep quiet.

Soon, with other kidnapped blacks, he finds himself with a new name – Platt – and on a steamboat headed south to Louisiana, where he will pass through the hands of two masters.

Ford (Benedict Cumberbach) is what you might call a Jeffersonian slaveholder. An essentially decent man, he knows slavery is wrong but is too invested economically in his plantation to repudiate the practice.

Still, the slave and the master develop something approaching mutual respect – it’s pretty clear that Solomon/Platt is the only person for miles around with whom Ford can hold an intelligent dialogue.

But in a world where a black man can be hanged for reading and writing, Solomon knows to keep his light well hidden. (more…)

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