Dr. Strange: Scripting Comedy

Dr. Strange

Humor as the human dimension—an old dog doing new tricks

I know what you are thinking, “Comedy really? I mean this is the Cumberbatch-gone-gangbuster Dr. Strange right?” Yes, indeed, you are correct. What I mean to say is, this is a popular-level film that is doing comedy in a unique way.

Its no surprise that a film written/directed by Scott Derrickson explores the depths of the human experience. It is a surprise that such dramatic sequences occur in a fantastically CGed superhero film. Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange) remarked, “The feeling of watching it is sort of synesthetic. We’re trying to do something in a visual language that Shakespeare, say, did with words—to unlock parts of the human condition…understanding the limits of the human condition.”

Mads Mikkelsen on the set of 'Doctor Strange' filming on location in New York City.
Mads Mikkelsen on the set of ‘Doctor Strange’ filming on location in New York City.

A Scene Well-Put

Humor thoughtfully weaves through intense combat to dialogue sequences. The thing is Dr. Strange isn’t just replicating the traditional use of comic relief. The kinds of comedy vary. A toppling broom in a quiet room freaks out Christine (Rachel McAdams). Dr. Stephen Strange’s awkwardly excessive UK-dryness transforms the audience into pipe organ of guffaws. There is nothing like laughing with crowd of strangers. Meanwhile, Strange’s cape, a perfect match for his arrogance, acts like a kind of Peter Pan’s shadow. Even Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen), the villain, gets a punch. Its clear that Dr. Strange’s humor is not just ‘doing what you are supposed to do.’ The humor spans a range of comedic styles and lands at appropriate times.

The Super genre is new territory for me. I’m not used to imagining stories of a fantastical type. Therefore, at points I was tempted to fall out of the suspension of disbelief. I couldn’t relate. I kid you not, every time that temptation came Derrickson served up a slice of the comedic pie.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Scott Derrickson
Benedict Cumberbatch and Scott Derrickson

Laughter is relatable.

When done well, it can bring a distant audience into even the most outlandish experiences.Comedy glued together this magical and philosophical film. It catered humor to all viewer preferences kicking up a communal experience only a theater can conjure. And, it guided the audience into Dr. Strange’s most esoteric and contemplative explorations.

 

– Kylee

 

*Speaking of humor in film, looking forward to the Kiwi-humorist, Taika Waititi’s upcoming Thor—due for wide release November 3, 2017

Notes On Blindness: Film for the Common Good

Notes on Blindness introduces a ‘world beyond sight.’

 

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Flickers of light, swinging and shifting scenes, blurred figures and 3D tours of anatomy—these are just a few elements that viewers ingest in the film Notes on Blindness. Besides an original approach to cinematography what good are these images? The documentary commemorates a blind scholar and theologian’s journey into darkness. Filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney broadcast John Hull’s dream, bringing together the visually-impaired and the sighted. The Notes on Blindness project is a project for the common good.

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Committed to John and Marilyn Hull, Middleton and Spinney involved the husband and wife in the writing and filming process. But, they didn’t stop there. John Hull’s audio diaries are the entirety of the script. Actors Dan Skinner and Simone Kirby learned the cadence and rhythms of John and Marilyn’s speech. Their prolific lip-syncing give form to those voices.

The film instigates the melding of the visually-impaired and sighted communities.

Cinematography does not privilege the sighted. Hard to envision, I know. Middleton and Spinney shoot in spotty segments, focusing on the object projecting sound such as moving lips and tapping shoes. Flashes of light stun viewers’ retinas making it difficult to refocus on the dark images. The sighted are welcomed into the world of blindness. Meanwhile, multiple viewing options construct opportunities for the visually-impaired. An audio-enhanced version lends spatial descriptions alongside film dialogue. An enhanced soundtrack version uses additional dialogue sequences as well as filled out sound design and music.

The virtual reality project offers the experience of the blind to the sighted.

The film is not the only aspect of the project. The VR experience, Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, provides an opportunity for the sighted audience to encounter the ‘world beyond sight.’ This six-part interactive documentary exhibits the psychological experience of blindness.

Middleton, Spinney and their collaborators have taken an inspirational step for film. Their documentary-style storytelling extends past the traditional transfer of unique information. Notes on Blindness reconciles two experiences of world, of life. The sighted are introduced to the blind with fantastic innovation and profound dignity.

*Notes on Blindness US screenings begin November 14 (click here for more information).
*The VR experience is available for download on Oculus.

 

– Kylee

 

The Birth of a Nation – Ideology meets Action

The Birth of a Nation is not a statement. It’s a question, a very personal question.

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How will you respond to injustice?

The Birth of a Nation
Samuel Turner and Nat Turner

We live in a torn world. Flashes of evil–murder, terrorism, systemic oppression, and war–populate our TV screens and our lives. This story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) revisits the golden age of the slave-wrenching South. The Birth of a Nation does not merely tell an untold story about the horrors of slavery. It offers a glimpse of the question we must ask ourselves. Nat deliberates how he should respond to the evil that he sees. How does ideology meet action?

Nat’s grandmother (Esther Scott) tells the story of her husband’s death back in Africa. With regality she declares her pride in how he gave up his ghost. Then her eyes descend to envious sorrow as she admits, “I’m so happy he [died] that day. He didn’t have to see the things I’ve seen… a strong man broken down.” Nat journeys as an itinerant preacher, he travels from plantation to plantation—a front row seat to abhorrent atrocities. Nat does see the evil. But, those sights are just the beginning.

Unlike Braveheart’s William Wallace, the crux of Nat Turner’s narrative is the decision to fight. How should he respond to oppression? A quote attributed to the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reads, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Nat’s convictions slowly churn for the first 45 minutes of the film. Everything has its consequences. He considers his child and his wife (Aja Naomi King), his Bible, his responsibility and the future of his fellow slaves. In the film each person has his/her own choice to make based on specific circumstances. The Turner family, Nat’s owners, take notice of the wickedness, but they are quickly blinded again and again by their aristocratic web. Some of the slaves pray for a savior and choose steadfast endurance. Their response is not passivity; like Nat’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis), these slaves support the stability to the community. Nat chooses another path. The plot climaxes at Nat treading his own Via Delarosa. His final choice is to save the slaves who are reaping the rebellion’s consequences by offering his life.

The Birth of a Nation is a lament. It is a place to weep with those who wept in our history, and also to mourn the oppressions that populate our contemporary world. The Birth of a Nation does not give an answer to how we, individually, should respond. The story does provoke a new generation to move towards peace.

How will I choose to move towards peace today?

 

– Kylee

 

Documentary filmmaking takes a timely twist

A documentary that pulls us under and slips us into the shoes of a character forms lasting imprints on our psyches and on our hearts.

Are stories more believable than the six-o’clock news? Is a well-crafted narrative more successful in forming opinions and communicating information than detached press releases? I think so. And, I reckon producers sense this too. The public definitely wants to know what is going on the international stage. But, these days the jaded relay of censored information doesn’t cut it.

The Big Short - An exploration of documentary

 

Sully
Tom Hanks with Captain Chesley Sullenberg

For at least the past year we have been witnessing an interesting evolution in the film industry. When it comes to documentaries, both Hollywood and independent filmmakers have been performing some serious genre-bending. Projects like The Big Short, Notes on Blindness, Southside with You, Sully and most recently, Snowden have all capitalized on the story-telling aspect of the doc-genre.

There seems to be a new sub-genre of documentary films emerging. It adequately delivers stories, but focuses on bringing the viewers into that story. These releases are also time sensitive. Snowden, The Big Short and Sully do not reflect on a distant history; the viewers are contemporaries of the real-time events. These films tell incredible stories and also reveal a perspective of how life operates behind the media-curtain.

I would be delighted to see more docs move this direction—spreading stories in unforgettable ways.

What I most appreciate about these films is that they provide us–ridged, desensitized, over-stimulated Americans–with a gateway to empathy. Traditional documentaries often require a significant investment in the topic prior to viewing. Of course their spots, facts, horrors, and wonders invigorate us and compel us in new ways, but sadly the consumption of these documentaries easily digest in our steel stomachs. Recall the last time you saw a doc. Deeply moved? Now, how long did it take for you to totally forget about it? My guess is maybe a week at the longest. Documentaries that pull us under and slip us into the shoes of a character form lasting imprints on our psyches and on our hearts.

 

– Kylee

Hacksaw Ridge – Why should you see it?

Hacksaw Ridge juxtaposes the anguish of war with the beauty of faith.

Hacksaw Ridge - Desmond Doss  (Andrew Garfield)

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) serves in the WWII Battle of Okinawa with his wild band of brothers. Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist and contentious objector, enlists for the US Army. As a medic he secures permission to not even touch a gun. Concerned with his beliefs, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) publicly warns the boys while they are in boot camp that they cannot trust Doss, because he is a coward. He is beaten, imprisoned and rejected by his troupe simply for having a different view. We see how ‘The Coward’s’ convictions emerged from events in his past and we see him remain true to those convictions. However, Doss’s beliefs about the value of life are translated into action at the battle itself, where he miraculously saves over seventy lives. Hacksaw Ridge juxtaposes the anguish of war with the beauty of faith.

Hacksaw Ridge depicts the mental and physical trauma of battle.

HR is the goriest movie I have ever seen. I‘m not one to be turned inside-out by blood and guts, but there were several moments where I felt like I needed to turn my head or close my eyes. But I didn’t. I was sitting next to a veteran. I didn’t know him, but I knew that I needed to keep my eyes open for him. I was moved to endure this piece of hell to honor the hell that he endured.

It is obvious that we have an epidemic in this country. After saving so many lives, our veterans are suffering and dying even at times by their own hands. HR makes that obvious, going about it eloquently in a non-preachy kind of way. Bloody explosions, brotherly affection, and moments of fierce courage usher the viewer into the life of a soldier in a way that no encyclopedic definition or informative news flash ever could.

Hacksaw Ridge shows how Christian convictions should work to restore the world, not to incriminate it.

The world’s religions hold some of the most compelling stories offered to humanity. They have been repeated and reflected in different forms for centuries. Oddly enough, in the past ten years we have seen some of the most horrible films rendering faith and contemporary life. Recent story-telling is failing miserably when it comes to exploring religious belief. HR has broken that trend. It is timely, reverent and exceptionally made.

Sure, there were parts of the script I would have written differently, CGI I was discontent with and approaches to plot mechanics I would have liked to be more daring. HR wasn’t phenomenal. What I cannot get away from is that this film changed me. It has been weeks since I have seen it, but it just keeps coming up: in my prayers, in my interactions and in my own artwork. My hope is that Hacksaw Ridge inspires you too, inspires you to consider not what your convictions are, but how they can bring beauty and vitality to the world.

– Kylee

(In Wide Release – November 4, 2016)

Why Jesus Failed Ben-Hur

The Ben-Hur story suggests that best way to critique Jesus Christ is to write a life in response to his life.

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Ben-Hur represents peace in a time of war, faith in a culture of skepticism, union in a society of division, and most thoroughly forgiveness to a people of vengeance. This is not true in its narratival setting alone, but also in today’s larger blockbuster climate. The reproduction of this century-old epic blasphemes our cultural milieu. Such a bold move is not surprising coming from Ben-Hur’s director Timur Behmambetov, who capitalizes on unsuspected plot shifts. But, was this representation of ethics and religion too superficial for us to handle? I think so.

This depiction of Ben-Hur does not shy away from the story’s inherent christocentric backbone. The hellish suffering in the galleys transforms Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), but the most radical transformation comes in his final response to Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). Bekmambetov implements subtle visual gestures to link Judah Ben-Hur and Jesus such as: their physical appearance, whipping scars, and the cross that Judah Ben-Hur finds salvation on at sea.

The scripting, cinematography and acting fails when it comes to presenting a believable portrayal of Jesus. His character comes off crudely one-dimensional. Santoro’s performance presented us with a feel-good-hippie Jesus, but his lines, constructed of straight up biblical quotations, were not helpful either. Not all characters need to be filled out for a story to work, but the key-players must be robust to be believable. Luckily in this case, the ethos of Christ’s followers partially resurrects him. Judah Ben-Hur’s wife Esther (Nazanin Bonladi) becomes a close follower of Jesus. Her response to Christ and Ben-Hur actually has some say to why Jesus is even a valid component in the narrative.

Literary critic and philosopher George Steiner suggested that the best way to critique a novel is to write a novel in response to it. Perhaps the best way to critique Jesus Christ is to write a life in response to his life. The film Ben-Hur attempts to lend this kind of attentive critique but ultimately suggests a Jesus who founds an absurd forgiveness and produces an unimaginable reconciliation. I consider it more than unfortunate that Jesus was attended so sloppily. He crippled the backbone of a celebrated story and made forgiveness and reconciliation a fanciful, religious daydream.

– Kylee

 

Florence Foster Jenkins

Director Stephen Frear’s Florence Foster Jenkins easily cascades down American psyches with its terrific and terrifying humor. FFJ brings to life a new meaning for a ‘feel-good movie’. It is fun, honest, and… morally disturbing.

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Florence opens with a sequence at the Verdi Club, an aristocratic-art-club cultivated by the popular and generous goddess of music, Madame Jenkins (Meryl Streep). The fine-dressed and blue-haired crowd moons over outrageous still-scenes, startling monologues, and elaborate musical numbers performed before them.

After over twenty-five years of sideline support, Madame Florence’s last wish is to share the music that has so inspired her all of her life. The philanthropist defies incredible odds when she not only records an album, but also performs at the esteemed Carnegie Hall.

FFJ follows Madame Florence as she embarks on this journey to celebrate her own ambition – opera singing. Her foremost obstacle is the fact that her singing is simply dreadful. Her unpredictable pitch variation and flitting tone is fingernails-to-the-chalkboard. Yet, her money-hungry supporters and strangely sympathetic husband (Hugh Grant) work tirelessly to assure that Madame Florence only receives compliments and encouragement. Though the film lacks in a dynamic plot escalation, it does not lack in dynamic characters and good questions.

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Performances by Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant emit a matured grandeur. Madame Florence’s purity meets no match in comedy, or philanthropy for that matter. Meanwhile, Mr. Bayfield’s (Grant) harrowing moral compromises skate about that very purity. Yet, it is the unassuming accompanist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) who steals the show. His interpretation of the philanthropist, her husband and her deceptive supporters matches the conjectures of the film goers, creating a kind of confused solidarity between the 2-D and 3-D world. Helberg’s near-limitless expressions rectifies the magic of silent films with a modern twist.

These unique characters are a delight to watch as they interact with one another and romp around the terrain of honesty. FFJ ponders a barrage of questions involving ambition, courage, and sincerity. The film does not give strict answers, but does come out the other side saying one thing – go for it! Or in the words of Madame Florence, “People may say I can’t sing, but they can’t say I didn’t.”

-Kylee