Is Bill Nye really helping science?

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So, Netflix Canada has started showing Bill Nye Saves the World, a science series designed for adult audiences, and in the first two episodes, he has tackled issues such as climate change and alternative remedies. The premise of the show is that Nye will use the scientific method to debunk the myths.

In theory, I am all for this approach. Unfortunately, the entire show is theory. In two episodes, I have seen nothing of a scientific method.

Episode 1: We’re going to heat a liquid to show you that heat causes things to expand. We’re going to tell you that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that things get hot because the gas traps heat energy. The rest of the episode is mostly just people yelling about how silly deniers are.

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Bill Nye, the gimmick guy

Episode 2: Magnetic patches don’t cure disease because there is nothing to magnetically attract in the body. Oh, and this is how clinical trials work. But we’re not going to test magnetic patches in a clinical trial because we don’t have to. There was one scientific experiment to show that Milk of Magnesia neutralizes acid while a Whole Foods purchased stomach remedy did nothing to neutralize acid. Thing is, there is more to upset stomach than acid neutralization, and we don’t know the mechanism of action of a lot of FDA-approved medications. The rest of the episode was Nye yelling “that’s stupid” (not literally).

Despite his self-proclaimed mission, Nye seems to be playing into the hands of the anti-science faction by trying to cram complicated subjects into 30-minute windows of reality-style television that is more Jerry Springer than Mr. Science.

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Ridiculing the other side with unsupported taunts and name-calling is NOT good science. Shoddy, make-shift experiments that don’t actually prove your point are NOT good science.

If you say claims have not been supported by scientific evidence or clinical trial, then run those studies to prove the claims aren’t true. THAT is good science. But it is lousy television.

So, Bill Nye; are you a television personality or a science advocate?

If you remain the latter, then cut the bullshit and get back to the method.

If you are the former, then take off the lab coat, and I’ll go back to Thomas Dolby.

 

With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

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Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Warmly welcoming – La Sala review

La Sala

(photo not mine)

A relative newcomer to The Beaches neighbourhood in East Toronto, La Sala is an Italian restaurant that bridges the gap between family dining and fine dining.

Hosted in a renovated home just off Queen Street, La Sala offers a cosy, welcoming environment akin to visiting the home of a good friend. Decoration is subtle and the yellow walls both inside and out bring warmth to the dining experience.

While offering a variety of dishes, the menu is clean and simple, covering only a single page of $12 appetizers, $16 pastas and $20-$24 main courses that should please any palate.

For an appetizer, I opted for the eggplant parmesan (Parmigiana di Melanzane), which was generously portioned and nicely featured baked eggplant rather than what I expected to be fried. The surprise was my own fault, however, as the menu actually states the eggplant is baked. Baking the eggplant meant that you still got the full flavour of the vegetable while it retained its body (frying often seems to turn them into mush), and the eggplant nicely stood against the generously portioned tomato sauce, providing distinct mouth-feel and compartmentalized flavours.

My dining companion ordered the Romaine fennel and kale salad, which was generously accompanied by avocado dressing, bacon and croutons. Nicely, the salad did not appear to be drowned in dressing and the bacon was short strips rather than crumbles, giving my guest something to bite into.

(BTW: I know I am using the word generous a lot…you are not going home hungry.)

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Warm, inviting atmosphere (photo not mine)

As a main course, I ordered the butternut squash ravioli, my go-to dish when available both because I like the dish and because it affords me an opportunity to compare between restaurants. Covered in a beautiful butter and sage sauce that was very subtle both in flavour and weight, the ravioli were slightly undercooked, the pasta being a bit chewy. For its part, the butternut squash puree was nice, but could have stood with a bit more spice for my tastes, although my dining partner had no problem with it. For me, the challenge was that the puree struggled to compete with the strong saltiness of the parmesan shavings, and so the dish ended up being somewhat one-note.

More of a seafood fan than me, my partner ordered the seafood linguine (Linguine Frutti di Mare), which looked amazing and I am told was even better. La Sala did not scrimp on the seafood in this dish, the large plate being almost overwhelmed by the mussel and clam shells. And according to my companion, the calamari and octopus were cooked to perfection. Add in some shrimps and my friend spent the better part of the meal picking through the linguine to make sure she got all of the seafood available in the dish before digging into the pasta. To quote her: “This is the best seafood linguini I have ever eaten in my life.”

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La Sala’s warmth fits nicely with The Beaches eclectic vibe

Having filled up on her salad and main course, my companion could not manage dessert, whereas I had little choice but to order the chocolate mousse with crispy almonds and whipped cream. The full-bodied mousse was delicate on the palate and yet offered plenty of flavour. And nicely, the portion size was large enough to share, but not so large as to leave this well-fed diner in distress.

As to the service, La Sala seems to pride itself on being very attentive to its customers as rarely did our water glasses empty before someone offered to refill them. Likewise, as we finished each course, the next one arrived dutifully. One of the staff was perhaps a tad too diligent with replacing our cutlery and napkins, as we almost ended up with a third napkin by the arrival of dessert, but as much as anything, I put that down to a half-filled house with a full staff—people had time on their hands.

Overall, the evening was a wonderful success and despite the minor setback with my main course, I will quite eagerly return to enjoy what is sure to become a neighbourhood favourite and as good a reason as any to visit The Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto.

Criminal should be more Self/less

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Ryan Reynolds is a hot commodity in Hollywood, these days. Unlike so many starlets, however, they want him more for his brains than his body…quite literally.

Or at least that’s the only way I can explain why twice within a year they have tried to scramble his brains: first with that of Sir Ben Kingsley, and more recently with Kevin Costner’s.

In Criminal—recently released to Netflix (trailer)—Reynolds is CIA agent Bill Pope trying to protect a hacker called the Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who has managed to wormhole his way into the American defense system, enabling him to launch missiles at will. But before he can bring his man in, Pope is captured by the evil rich anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà) who tortures Pope to find the Dutchman.

When his CIA handlers, led by Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), find Pope dead, they enlist the help of neuroscientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to essentially transfer Pope’s memories into the world’s most cold-blooded killer Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner), a man completely devoid of conscience.

(Did these people not see Young Frankenstein?)

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Give a psychopath super-spy skills and knowledge? What could go wrong?

As expected, shit goes to pieces and the hunt is on—by the CIA, Heimdahl and even the Russians—for both Jerico and the Dutchman.

Despite being an action-thriller with plenty of gore—Jerico kills and maims indiscriminately—Criminal ultimately asks philosophical questions about who we are, how we got that way and can we be redeemed.

As the movie progresses, we witness the influence of Pope’s good-guy neurological engrams on the social and moral chaos of monster Jerico. Something is wrong, Jerico explains as he grasps his head; something is seriously interrupting his thoughts and actions.

In a humorous moment, Jerico learns he is experiencing something the rest of the world calls emotions, possibly for the first time in his life. He is unimpressed.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Given the stellar cast, which also includes Gal Gadot as Pope’s grieving and confused wife, the performances are mostly passable, especially given the woodenness of the dialogue—the screenplay was written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who previously penned The Rock and Double Jeopardy. This is an action film, so we shouldn’t really expect much.

To my mind—and friends disagree—the deepest performance is offered by the coldest, most heartless character Jerico, much as the same could be said for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Michael Fassbender’s robot David in Prometheus. In a very dark turn, Costner embues his merciless killer with dark humour and ultimately, as Pope’s neural influences and memories kick in, a confused heart that many of us can understand.

Assuming you can leave your credulity in a drawer, the story is minimal but passable. That an action film makes any attempt to ask lofty questions is laudable.

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Largely wasted stellar cast who spent movie doing exactly this

Unfortunately, as I alluded at the start, Criminal suffers in comparison with another brain transfer film: Self/less, released in 2015 and also starring Ryan Reynolds (trailer).

In that film, Kingsley plays billionaire industrialist Damian Hale at the end of his life but desperate for more time. Meeting with a neuroscientist who essentially offers him immortality, Hale arranges his own “death” and has his neurological patterns transferred to Reynold’s brain, assuming a new identity as Edward Kidner. Reynold’s character volunteered for the experiment to raise money to rescue his daughter from life-threatening disease.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Again, chaos ensues as Reynold’s memories invade Kidner’s consciousness, and the neuroscientist and his mob race to capture their subject, destroying everything in their path to maintain their secret.

Like Criminal, Self/less asks questions about what defines our identity. But it delves even deeper, going into questions about one’s right to an identity and the ultimate costs of consuming another’s. And for all characters, it is a story about sacrifice.

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Dead husband finds grieving widow and daughter

Given this backdrop, Criminal might have been seen as a better movie if only for what it tried to do. But on the heels of Self/less, it simply looks like a pale imitation that made a valiant, if ultimately doomed, attempt at significance.

Ironically, it reflected its own plot.

See also:

MovieReview360 w/ Shannon Leahy (YouTube)

Criminal (RogerEbert.com)

Criminal: Film Review (The Hollywood Reporter)

Kevin Costner steals the show in far-fetched but entertaining crime thriller (Deadline)

Self/less (RogerEbert.com)

Not too Bad Santa 2

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As a cynic, particularly around the holidays, it seems strange that I have never seen Bad Santa, but then I am not much of a fan of Billy Bob Thornton, the titular character. Thus, as I headed out to see Bad Santa 2, I had few expectations and simply held out hope that I wouldn’t be completely bored.

Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed myself while watching this seriously flawed but nonetheless funny movie.

I suspect the new edition seems very much a reprise of the original with the main characters Willie (Thornton) and Marcus (Tony Cox) getting together to pull off yet another caper; in this case, the robbery of a Chicago charity run by scheming Regent Hastings (Ryan Hansen) and his almost pure wife Diane (Christina Hendricks). Complicating matters this time is the presence of Willie’s mom Sunny (Kathy Bates), the woman who raised Willie to be the miserable, alcoholic, criminal shit that we see today.

In many ways, the movie becomes one long series of double-crosses and opportunities for Willie to do the right thing, particularly by the doting man-child Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), but failing to live up to the moments.

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Mommy dearest Bates is guaranteed to let you down

To say that Bad Santa 2 is dark and cynical is to cope with a language that simply cannot catch the nihilism of these characters and their life choices. Thurman is the only redeeming character in this story and that is likely only because he is a clinical moron, incapable of guile and oblivious to sarcasm. As the title indicates, this is the anti-Christmas Christmas movie that would drive even Jesus Christ himself to suicide (likely some time around Easter).

And annoyingly, this is exactly why I liked this film. It was so dark and treacherous, so cynically funny, that I could not help but find the darkness endearing. This is a seasonal film for the purely jaded and given the language and adult scenes, should not be viewed with a broader family.

As no doubt in the first film, Thornton’s Willie continually finds himself let down by the people around him, feeding his suicidal neuroses. Bates is a delight as Kathy Bates under the pseudonym Sunny Soke, a woman devoid of tenderness except when it is part of a larger scheme to screw someone over. And Hendricks is the inveterate do-gooder who has her baser side, Christian charity coupled with carnal itches that need Santa’s attention.

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Hendricks allows her libido to cloud her better judgement

There are so many things about this story that don’t work as a story, and the ending is a complete waste of celluloid, the screenwriters Shauna Cross (who also wrote Whip It) and John Rosenthal in his debut feature film seeming to have simply typed until they ran out of toner. And yet, for all of the short-comings, you don’t really care because that is largely life. Nothing ends where it should and never satisfyingly.

If you aren’t at least intrigued by the idea of setting your nearest nativity scene ablaze or mounting Rudolph’s head on your front bumper, I am not sure you should see Bad Santa 2. But if you were not repulsed by either of those ideas, you may find some dark dark pleasure in this film.

See also:

MovieReview360 w/ Shannon Leahy (YouTube)

Same old dirty tricks (The Guardian)

Bad Santa 2 works through mommy issues (New York Times)

Movie Review: Bad Santa 2 (Danny F Santos)

Close Encounters with Arrival – a review

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Although Star Wars will remain the apex of my formative years as a young writer and dreamer, Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays a close second. At the risk of blasphemy, the latter film was significantly superior to the Lucas’ space western, offering insights into humanity and our possible place in the Universe that I couldn’t begin to fathom until later in life.

Such films are rare.

Arrival, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened widely this week, is one of those films and is a worthy successor to Close Encounters.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, a man better known for horror films like the reboots of The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Arrival opens with the arrival of 12 alien space craft—looking a bit like fat Pringles—at strategic positions around the globe.

Almost the entire story is told from the perspectives of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and shows their efforts to communicate with the aliens under the watchful eye of military commander Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), as scientists and military commands near the other 11 craft attempt the same.

While the trio works to simply comprehend the existence of the aliens, let alone try to communicate with them, the outside world falls apart as fear and a sense of insignificance grasps at the hearts of populations being told largely nothing, feeding the paranoid darkness that resides within all of us.

Without giving key aspects of the story away, the movie deals with broad metaphysical questions about existence and time, while at the same time, providing insights into our species at both its greatest apex and deepest nadir. And at its very base, it encapsulates the importance of trust in our evolution as individuals, as a society and as a species.

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Amy Adams channels Richard Dreyfuss in her awe at the miracle before her

This is Amy Adams’ movie, and so all of these concepts are displayed through her fears and growth. She must learn to trust her human colleagues. She must learn to trust her alien counterparts, adorably nicknamed Abbott and Costello. And most importantly of all, she must learn to trust herself despite flashes of what seems like madness.

To tie back to Close Encounters, Adams is this movie’s Richard Dreyfuss, and she embues her character with both the same manic trepidation and child-like wonder as Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary.

Renner and Whitaker, for their parts, are incredibly subdued in this film.

Renner’s Donnelly is an emotional anchor for Adams. Coming from the academic world, his tone is at once familiar and playfully combative.

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The photographic focus on Adams is representative of Renner’s role in this film.

Whitaker’s Weber is authoritative and yet unthreatening. He is the calm in the intellectual storm, grounding the two academics for what they are about to witness and becoming increasingly appreciative of the miracle that unfolds before him.

What I found particularly interesting about Heisserer’s story was that the antagonist of the film was Fear.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of mortality. Fear of our own insignificance. And more importantly, our deepest fear that as individuals, we simply don’t measure up.

And breaking the rules of screenwriting, this fear was not embodied in a single antagonist, but in all characters, and it was only in fleeting moments that any individual character acted upon his or her fear. And yet, as fleeting as those moments were, each was vital to the evolution of the story and the critical relationships to their next stages.

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Connection relies on trust

Again, these moments fed back to the question of trust, particularly in the face of betrayal.

To assure everyone that this film isn’t simply a cerebral exercise—although it is beautiful in what it does accomplish—there is also a very deep emotional thread that runs through this movie, again centering on Adams. And from the opening, it seems like this personal journey is completely disconnected from the sci-fi plot.

But as the story unfolds and we begin to explore what is possible in an infinite cosmos, we begin to realize that the external and internal journeys are one and the same. There is no distinction. The line between physical and emotional is an artifact of our choices as humans and society.

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Arrival continues the saga that started with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Will Arrival be to adolescent minds today what Close Encounters was to mine in 1977?

Probably not.

It is a much more adult film that its predecessor, with many fewer action sequences to engage the eye. And Villeneuve’s views and sensibilities are very different from Steven Spielberg’s.

But Arrival is the closest thing to those seminal films that we have seen in a generation or more. And for the more engaged child or adolescent, it will open a window to another plane of storytelling.

See also:

Movie Review: Arrival (Danny F. Santos)

Amy Adams supplies emotional core of alien invasion film “Arrival” (Richard Crouse, CTV News)

Amy Adams has a sublime word with alien visitors (The Guardian)

Doctor Strange quite ordinary – a review (UPDATED)

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As a disclaimer, you should know that I have grown weary of comic book movies and the various universes involved. Thus, I understand if some of you stop reading here.

Are they gone? Is anyone left?

Doctor Strange is the latest entrant to the ever-expanding Marvel universe. In this origin movie, it is the story of a brilliant, ego-driven neurosurgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) who suffers a debilitating accident that destroys his career and therefore his reason to live. In trying to regain use of his hands, he finds a mystical Eastern retreat and begins a journey into magic, multi-planed realities and lessons in humility through the guidance of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).

The arrival of Strange might not be totally of his choosing, however, as he reaches the retreat at a time when it is facing its greatest threat, a former student (Mads Mikkelson) who has moved to the Dark Side and wants to feed the Earth to a Dark Entity (Dormammu) that swallows universes whole. And so the battle ensues, Dark vs Light (well, mostly Light), with weapons of magic, shifting realities, and literally shifting buildings that hearken back to the movie Inception.

And this is where I struggle with this movie. There is little here that is in any way original.

For me, this is The Shadow (look back in the archives for that one) meets Inception, with a soupçon of Kung Fu Panda and Harry Potter And The Who Gives A Damn, each of which I felt were better movies than Doctor Strange.

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From Inception to Strange with little improvement

On the plus side, Cumberbatch is perfectly suited to this role, his droll delivery of cornball one-liners perfectly pitched—a la Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark. And the visual paintings of colour, perspective and sound are insanely rich and dazzling, worthy of the best recreational pharmaceuticals (so I am told).

But that is really all that this movie has going for it: big-screen kaleidoscope and Tony Stark 1.1 (can’t even manage 2.0).

The story is pretty linear with zero twists or turns. And even with that, the writers felt they needed to explain the story every 30 minutes or so with long streams of exposition. Apparently, all of the budget was spent on special effects and so they were forced to break the “show, don’t tell” writers’ convention. These aren’t reveals; they’re explains.

And aside from Cumberbatch’s waltz through ego and bon mots, all of the performances by the supporting actors are largely wasted.

Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One couldn’t hold the chopsticks of Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu (Kung Fu Panda). Mads Mikkelson’s Kaecilius is totally silly-us and I don’t recall any explanation as to why he chose to leave the school and work for the Dark Side.

And what the hell happened to Rachel McAdams’ career? Here, she plays Strange’s estranged love interest Christine Palmer and is given nothing to do aside from roll her eyes, squeal at loud noises and apply defibrillator paddles every half-hour or so.

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Sometimes, it is just about cashing the cheques (Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams)

As my friend and Movie Review 360 partner Danny suggested (see link to his review below), origin stories are throwaways, their only job being to set up the characters for the following movies and cross-overs. I can’t disagree with him on that point…this movie should have been thrown away.

As just the latest piece in the Marvel cinematic universe, the real meat of Doctor Strange will come as he begins to interact with all of the other tight-wearing, planet-razing whackos—and stick around through the credits for the first hints of that.

So, why even bother with this movie?

Nothing in Doctor Strange was necessary for any of what follows, I am confident.

Okay…comic book fans can come back in the room!

If you’re looking for some dazzling eye candy and a few choice ripostes worthy of Tony Stark, Doctor Strange is the perfect popcorn muncher. For everyone else, check out 1994’s The Shadow…it really is better than it should be.

 

See also:

Movie Review: Doctor Strange (Danny F. Santos)

Lively Doctor Strange breathes new life into Marvel Universe (CTV News)

This is the champagne of Marvel movies (Global News)

Movie Review 360 (reviews Doctor Strange & Fury)