Opening this week:
Doctor Strange—Once he’s fully decked out in the cloak and amulet, with the neatly trimmed goatee, Benedict Cumberbatch really looks and sounds the part of the title character, one of Marvel’s more agreeably metaphysical superheroes. This is an origin story for the “Master of Mystic Arts,” conjured up in 1963 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee for the pages of Strange Tales.
As in the comics, he’s a brilliant but selfish and arrogant surgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. In desperation, he travels to Nepal to seek out “The Ancient One” (a droll and courteous Tilda Swinton) in hopes of being healed. Instead she recruits him as a new student of sorcery, teaching him to leave his physical body and use his astral form, travel through the “multiverse” and battle evil psychically. Reality-bending adventures across M.C. Escher-ish cityscapes ensue, as Strange and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor)—a villain in the comics; here sympathetic—take on the sinister Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who has purloined a spell from one of the Ancient One’s books.
On the whole, I found this the most enjoyable comic book movie since Ant-Man in 2015, and Guardians of the Galaxy the year before that. Despite the cosmic scope of the material, director Scott Derrickson takes a straightforward and coherent approach to the narrative, which goes pleasingly easy on tired action-movie conventions.
Technically speaking, there’s little physical violence in the film at all. There’s plenty of martial-arts fighting, to be sure, but most of it takes place outside the physical realm, so for once the superhuman feats are justifiable. Better still, as we were leaving the screening, my friend pointed out “No guns,” and he was right—unless I missed it, there isn’t a single gunshot in Doctor Strange, and I didn’t feel cheated by this in the least.
Toward the end, the forces of darkness are unleashed, and buildings start to crumble in Hong Kong. I sighed. Again with the crumbling buildings, like in just about every other big action blockbuster of recent years—blocks literally being busted. But then Strange and his allies do battle with the bad guys while time runs backwards around them, and we get to see the buildings reassemble. This inversion of the sad, frightened post-9/11 subtext of the genre is very refreshing.
Trolls—Like the Smurfs flicks of recent years, this movie doesn’t shy away from its own potential to be annoying. The kitschy, cloying cutesiness of the “Good Luck Trolls” developed in the mid-20th Century by the Danish toymaker Thomas Dam is built right into this CGI musical from Dreamworks Animation, in the hope that it can be turned to ironic, self-deprecating advantage. For the most part, this works, or at least it worked for me.
The Trolls, who have long shocks of prehensile hair sticking up above their elfin faces, live like perennial glam clubbers. Led by Princess Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick), they spend their days singing, dancing and partying, under a philosophy of life as “Cupcakes and Rainbows,” not to mention hourly scheduled hugs.
Twenty years earlier, they narrowly escaped from the “Bergens,” a race of miserable snaggle-toothed ogres who believe they can only attain happiness by eating Trolls. The lone Troll dissenter from constant cheerfulness, the glum Branch (Justin Timberlake), is sure that the Bergens are still a threat, and that Princess Poppy’s blithe insistence on noisy partying increases the danger. He’s proved right, of course, and he and Poppy must team up to rescue a group of captured Trolls in danger of becoming a Bergen banquet.
A variety of allegorical interpretations are possible here, from a straightforward vegetarian reading to an evaluation, at times surprisingly subtle and nuanced, of pessimism versus optimism. But in any event, the movie is a silly good time, with inventive, laugh-out-loud gags and a generous heart.
Also, the music’s pretty good. In part, this is a jukebox musical—Zooey Deschanel, as a lovesick Bergen, gets to sing Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” for instance. But there are some original numbers as well, and a couple of them are sung by Kendrick, in her singular steely yet sweetly plangent belt. Her presence on the soundtrack biases me in favor of Trolls, I admit—not to put too fine a point on it, I could listen to her sing all day.
Coming Through the Rye—It’s 1969, and Jamie Schwartz (Alex Wolff) has written a stage version of Catcher in the Rye as his senior project at a private school in Pennsylvania. He hasn’t been able to secure permission from J.D. Salinger to produce it, however, so one weekend he and a free-spirited girl (Stefania Owen) head to New Hampshire to seek out the man in person.
This slight coming-of-age yarn is ostensibly based on the real-life experience of writer-director James Steven Sadwith. It’s pleasant, and sometimes poignant, and Wolff and Owen have a sweet chemistry. But there wouldn’t be much to the movie without the brush-with-reclusive-celebrity encounter.
Eventually Jamie manages to get a few minutes with Salinger, sharply played here, in two brief scenes, by the always-commanding Chris Cooper. Brusque and irritable but not unkind, the author endures another kid telling him about the connection he feels with Holden Caulfield. Momentous as this was to him, Sadwith is under no illusions that the episode was at all significant (or even unique) for Salinger, and this modesty gives Coming Through the Rye its rueful charm.