fantasy

REVIEW: Doctor Strange (2016)

After an accident that permanently damages his hands, neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) travels the world in search of healing. He’s drawn into the world of the mystic arts and is taught the sorcery skills and the path to enlightenment by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to protect the world.

Stephen Strange is a brilliant surgeon but an incredibly arrogant and rude man. His relationship with fellow doctor, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), is strained due to his superiority and it only get worse as he refuses to accept that his career as a leading neurosurgeon is over. Strange isn’t a likeable character and while he does go on a journey and changes, he’s still not a particularly pleasant guy.

Doctor Strange is an origin story, and an origin story that is very similar to that of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Iron Man. However, Cumberbatch lacks the humour and charisma of Downey Jr, which means that Strange feels like a very bland hero. Humour and Cumberbatch don’t really work together, in fact the only moments of humour that really land in Doctor Strange are when McAdam’s Christine is performing surgery while a magical battle is happening around her.

The bad guy in Doctor Strange is Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a sorcerer who’s got dark plans. He seems like an interesting antagonist, especially when he has a dialogue with Strange, but unfortunately you don’t get to see him that much – he’s there for a fight scene and then disappears until the next one.

Doctor Strange has some incredible visuals. While there’s a fair bit of exposition to introduce the concept of multiple dimensions and the astral plane to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when you get to see characters interact with and move between these dimensions, it’s stunning. Characters can bend reality to their will, leading to mind-bending visuals. It’s like a city is inside a kaleidoscope, and as the city folds into itself, characters are fighting with magic while contending with the constantly moving environment.

The performances are generally decent but not great unlike the spectacular visuals – but a great-looking film doesn’t make a great film. There are moments of wonder and excitement in Doctor Strange, but otherwise it’s not that memorable. 2/5.

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TOP 5 WEDNESDAY: Favourite Science Fiction & Fantasy Films

Top 5 Wednesday is a great feature hosted by ThoughtsonTomes. To find out more about Top 5 Wednesday and the upcoming topics, check out its Goodreads page. This week’s topic is in honour of the Booktube SFF Awards and instead of focusing on books, we’re talking about our favourite science fiction and fantasy in other media, whether that’s TV or Film. Me being me, has gone for film and here are some of my favourites.

Moon
If you’ve not watched Moon you really should. It’s a small-scale sci-fi film that sometimes feels claustrophobic, but that just adds to the underlying tension running throughout the film. Moon is eerie and gripping and Sam Rockwell is fantastic. It’s a film that’s lodged itself in my brain from the first time I saw it.

 

Transformers
While I do feel this franchise has gone on far too long and has generally gotten worse, I do love the first Transformers film. It’s one of my “comfort” films, if I feel down for some reason I’ll put it on and the over the top characters and action cheer me up. The battle in Qatar’s desert between the US military and a Decepticon is one of my favourite action sequences ever.

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REVIEW: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

When Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) becomes possessed by an ancient and powerful entity known as the Aether, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must team up with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to protect her from the genocidal Dark Elves led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who wants the Aether to throw the Nine Realms into darkness.

Thor: The Dark World finds Loki in prison for his crimes against Earth and his relationship with Thor is put to the test when he is the only one who can get them off Asgard undetected. Loki continues to be one of the most interesting and complex characters in the MCU. The one thing you can guarantee Loki to be is untrustworthy but the way that presents itself is still surprising.

While the Dark Elves do look aesthetically cool and somewhat intimidating, that doesn’t make them good or compelling villains. Malekith has no motivation besides turning the universe into darkness because that’s what he and his people thrive on, not matter the effects on different people. A lack of a decent villain makes this a typical end of the world type story. Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Malekith’s second in command, is reduced to a henchman and offers little opportunity for Akinnuoye-Agbaje to show how good an actor he is.

A nice call-back to the events in The Avengers is, like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, the fact that Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is suffering from having a God in his head. This reminds us that while the main heroes and villains of this story are Gods and monsters, there are humans here that have very human reactions to the fantastical things they face.

Thor is almost second fiddle to most of the characters in Thor: The Dark World despite being the titular character. Loki proves to be the more interesting and funny brother while Jane Foster saves the day with science. Still, Thor is suitably heroic and the final battle between him and Malekith is both funny and thrilling, thanks to the laws of physics being turned onto their head.

Thor: The Dark World is a more serious film, it even has a darker palette and it definitely likes that mouldy green colour that’s almost ever-present. It still has sprinkles of humour throughout and some good action sequences but it’s an average outing for Thor. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Shape of Water (2017)

In a top-secret research facility in 1960s Baltimore, a lonely cleaner named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) befriends a mysterious amphibious creature (Doug Jones) who is being terrorised by government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon).

The Shape of Water has a magical quality to it. The setting and particularly the music, gives it almost a golden age of Hollywood feel. Especially as the story is almost a classic story of love, friendship and good trying to triumph over evil. It’s almost like a fairy-tale and the way the film is bookended by some narration definitely adds to that feeling.

All the performances in The Shape of Water are great. Sally Hawkins does a brilliant job at conveying Elisa’s thoughts and feelings without ever saying a word. You believe in the connection she’s forming with this creature and seeing the two of the bond is lovely. Michael Shannon’s Strickland is a menacing presence from the first moment he appears. Every time he’s on screen your eyes are on him as he’s like a coiled spring ready to explode at any moment.

The Shape of Water is a bit tonally uneven. At its centre is a sweet story but then there’s sudden bouts of blood and violence – most of which are courtesy of Strickland. It’s also got some surprising moments of humour, a good number of them were from Elisa’s neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) who’s friendship with Elisa is lovely.

The Shape of Water is one of those films where I appreciated it more than I liked it. While for many it is one of their favourite films of the year, for me it was a lovely film with a lot of heart, but I don’t think it will stick with me for very long. 3/5.

REVIEW: Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh

At seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to marry a man she did not choose, a man who is the son of the Emperor. But her journey is cut short when her convoy is attacked by the Black Clan – a group of bandits and thieves who were hired to kill Mariko before she could reach the palace. But Mariko survives and vows revenge on those who want her dead. Disguised as a peasant boy, she infiltrates the Black Clan, becoming one of them, impressing them with her wit and ingenuity. But as she gets closer to her enemies, Mariko begins to discover a web of lies and a history of secrets that will change everything she thought she knew.

Flame in the Mist is set in Feudal Japan but there’s also some magical elements in it too. I really in the liked how the historical was entwined with the magic and myths, both seemed very groundedses characters reality. When this book first came out I heard it was a Mulan retelling or inspired by Mulan, and it’s really not. The only similarity to Mulan is that the main protagonist is a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to further her aims. Mariko’s goals are very different to Mulan’s. Mariko is very smart in terms of academia and alchemy, but is incredibly naïve when it comes to life outside her gilded cage. She doesn’t know how to hunt or cook or fight and often gets into verbal sparring matches with those around her to try and hide her failings.

Mariko likes to think she’s good at reading people, and has learnt to be underestimated, being a daughter of a prominent Samurai, but when she meets Ōkami she has a much harder time getting a read on him. The dynamic between Mariko and Ōkami is an interesting one and they bounce of each other really well, managing to intrigue and unsettle one another at the same time. Ōkami is just the sort of character I end up really liking. He’s slow to trust but loyal, has a deadly set of skills and is smart. He and Mariko make an unconventional partnership.

Flame in the Mist was a bit slow to pull me in. While it kicked off straight away with the attack on Mariko’s convey, I found it took a while to connect with her and her story. As the story progressed, more characters began to reveal themselves, their political aspirations and loyalty, slowly showing that Mariko was caught up in plots much bigger than herself. The second half of the book sped along though. There was a lot of action, fights and secrets revealed and it became a proper page-turner.

Flame in the Mist is the first book in a duology so natural there’s a lot of threads left hanging, though there was some good character stuff throughout the book. While I won’t be rushing out to get it as soon as it’s released later this year, I will be picking up Smoke in the Sun at some point as I did end up enjoying Mariko as a character and am interested to see how all the plot threads are wrapped up, especially the political ones. 3/5.

REVIEW: Thor (2011)

After Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) reckless behaviour, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banishes him from their home in Asgard, to live amongst humans on Earth. There he must learn to be a better man and face his jealous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Thor combines the action and adventure of superhero films with royal family feuds. Thor is a Prince and so is his brother Loki, but Loki has forever been in Thor’s shadow and wants to be seen as his brothers equal in their father’s eyes. Loki is a fascinating character and is one of the best villains in the MCU. His jealousy over his brother is justified from what you see and when its revealed how his father has been lying to him all his life, his actions are somewhat understandable, although very misguided.

On Earth, Thor meets scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her friends and colleagues Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). They attempt to show him how things are on Earth which allows for many fish out of water scenarios for Thor which are played brilliantly by Hemsworth. Thor is a more serious film, but its humour comes from its characters in a really honest and unforced way.

Thor’s fantastical elements come from the idea that science and magic are one and the same. The scene where Thor explains how he see’s the universe to Jane helps to fully ground Thor and his people in the everyday world Jane, and us as the viewers, inhabits.

Asgard is a beautiful place. The camera work along with the tech wizards who brought Asgard to life, show off this world in all its glory. The score helps with that too. Composed by Patrick Doyle the score is as magical and epic as it should be, and is worthy for the story of a God. Thor is directed by Kenneth Branagh and he handles the grandeur of this royal family in conflict brilliantly. By focussing on the family dynamics between Thor, his brother, and their father, it makes them all seem more human and relatable while still being incredibly powerful Gods.

Thor is a sweeping drama with battles, humour and romance. It’s a solid first outing for the character, setting up his world and people near-perfectly, and gives us a star performance in Hemsworth and one of the most interesting characters in the MCU in Loki. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

It’s Midwinter’s Eve, the night before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday. But there’s a threatening atmosphere all around him in the familiar countryside. Will is about to make a shocking discovery – he was born with the power of the Old Ones, he is the Seeker and a guardian of the Light, and he must begin a dangerous journey to vanquish the evil magic of the Dark.

The Dark is Rising is the second book in the Dark is Rising Sequence, but much like how you can read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without reading the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia, the same can be said for how this series works. I read The Dark Is Rising as a part of #TheDarkIsReading, a Twitter readalong set up by Robert Macfarlane and Julia Bird. As I’ve had a big bind up collection of the series sitting on my shelf for about ten years, this was the push I needed to delve into the series.

The Dark is Rising is a creepy and atmospheric book. The description is incredibly vivid and often raised a chill down my spine. It’s set in the heart of Winter and over the Christmas period and it artfully blends together the dark, eerie nights with the family and warmth of Christmas. Having these two elements juxtaposed adds an extra level of danger and consequence to the task Will must complete.

Will is a young boy that has a heavy burden on his shoulders. Once he learns that he is the last of the Old Ones and what that means, he is embraces his role, but he never stops being a child. He’s an incredibly brave character who often act on his gut instinct alone.

The Dark is a truly evil and foreboding force that’s present throughout the book. The Black Rider is often the visible foe for Will and his allies, but the Dark is so much bigger than the Rider. Everything the Dark can do adds a sense of wrongness to Will’s life in the countryside, the way animals act strangely or attack people, and how harsh the weather can be, it’s all influenced by the Dark.

I’m pleased I’ve finally read The Dark is Rising and can see why it is a beloved children’s classic. It has good themes, a strong mystery and a real sense of peril. Perhaps I’d like it more if it was a formative book of my childhood, but it’s still a spooky seasonal read with an intriguing and fantastical adventure. 3/5.