They say failure is a great teacher. I’m not so sure about that, at least when it comes to Hollywood. If they were actually learning anything from their myriad of cinematic disasters, I wouldn’t have so very much to write about in KIMT’s Weekend Throwdowns. They just keep making the same flippin’ mistakes, bad judgments and inexplicable decisions over and over and over. It’s become an industry where “let’s do another Ghostbusters…but with chicks” has become the height of bold and creative innovation.
I believe it’s because it is hard to learn from the failure of others. You never think what happened with them is going to happen with you.
“Hey, Terminator: Salvation sucked but surely bringing back 68-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger will fix everything! Especially if we also bring back Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese but with younger actors! What? Jai Courtney’s available? I smell box office, baby!”
“A remake of Ben-Hur? Starring Morgan Freeman and a bunch of nobodies? We absolutely have to spend $100 million on that!”
“So, we want to do a sequel to that Snow White movie with Kristin Stewart but without Kristin Stewart. Is there some way we could do it that also rips off Frozen where Disney doesn’t sue our asses? There is? Let’s go for it!”
Yeah, I think Hollywood is past the point where further spectacular disasters, both commercially and creatively, can teach them anything. So, let’s try the opposite as this Throwdown takes a look at two films from two very different eras to see what can be learned from success. It’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964) vs. “Doctor Strange” (2016) in a battle that proves there’s more than one way to entertainingly skin a cat.
“Dr. Strangelove” is a black comedy from the Cold War that was co-written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, one of the great filmmakers of his and any other age. Made in glorious black and white, it tells the story of an insane American general who launches a squadron of nuclear bombers on an unauthorized attack against the Soviet Union and the increasingly desperate efforts of the President of the United States to prevent global atomic annihilation. And yes, it is a comedy.
Expertly shot, smartly written and wonderfully performed, “Dr. Strangelove” is entirely deserving of its classic reputation. It’s a laugh out loud tale about one of the most horrifying threats ever faced by Humanity but one that probably leaves a lot of modern viewers wondering what all the fuss was about. There are long stretches of the film that aren’t funny at all. There’s no set up, no punch line, no joke at all. And some of the deliberate humor is built on premises that have been lost to history. The ramblings of General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) about fluoridation and a concluding gag about a “mine shaft gap” were audaciously hilarious in 1964 but must leave younger viewers today more perplexed than amused.
And black comedies themselves, which dwell more on the absurdity of the Mankind and his pretentions than hitting someone in the face with a pie, have become an endangered species. They still get made whenever someone important enough in Hollywood gets a bug up their behind about something and they often attract a lot of big name actors, but everyone involved seems to know they’re making something no one wants to see and they’re almost always proven right.
But the humor that still works in “Dr. Strangelove” still works quite well, highlighted by Peter Sellers in three separate and distinct roles that get funnier and funnier as the film goes along. The best thing you can say about Sellers here is that he is so good that he completely overshadows a performance by George C. Scott that would otherwise be recognized as an award-winning effort. As General “Buck” Turgidson, a grown man with the spirit of a kid playing with his toy soldiers who only occasionally recognizes the gravity of his situation, Scott is captivating.
What’s most striking about “Dr. Strangelove” for the purposes of this Throwdown, however, is all the things about it that would never fly in a movie made now. Almost all of it takes place in a series of enclosed rooms with characters who are just sitting and talking. The funniest things in the entire movie happen at the absolute end. As mentioned, there a long stretches of the film that don’t have a lick of explicit humor at all. One of Seller’s parts is an entirely normal guy whose moments of unintentional levity come out of sheer exasperation. “Dr. Strangelove” also has an overtly anti-military perspective and the only female in the cast seemingly serves as nothing but eye candy.
“Dr. Strangelove” is defined by a lack of fear. The movie is unafraid of its touchy subject matter and not scared of either offending it audience or asking for their indulgence. If they ever tried to remake this thing, they would cram random jokes into every other minute of screen time because the remakers would be terrified of boring anyone. But Kubrick isn’t trying to bombard the viewer with an emotionally manipulative experience. He’s trying to engage the viewer, both emotionally and intellectually. “Dr. Strangelove” is an honest to goodness story, not an amusement park ride disguised as a story.
“Doctor Strange,” the latest output from the Marvel Studios hit making factory, is much more an amusement park ride…but at least it’s a really good one.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant neurosurgeon who is capable of saving lives when no one else can but also the sort of self-centered jerk who rejects medical cases because he doesn’t think he can save the patient and is afraid of lowering his success rate. When an accident cripples his hands, Strange spends all his money in a failed effort to fix them. His desperation leads him to the Far East where he encounters a woman called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who opens Strange’s mind to greater realities and inducts him into the study of the mystic arts.
Since the movie is named after him, Strange turns into a brilliant student and gets dragged into defending the world from one of The Ancient One’s renegade former students (Mads Mikkelsen) who wants to create a new world of eternal life…but kind of missed the part about it being eternal life under the domination of an evil extradimensional entity named Dormammu. There’s a surprising amount of running and punching in a movie about magic and Strange triumphs in one of the most Silver Age-y conclusions ever seen in super-hero movies, and I mean that as a high compliment.
This is the 14th movie since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began in 2008 and “Doctor Strange” is one of the better ones. They haven’t all been great, you know. Between “Iron Man” (2008) and “The Avengers” (2012), there were four pretty meh and even sub-meh films and right after “The Avengers” came probably the worst flick in the whole bunch, “Iron Man 3” (2013). If you enjoyed the last two Captain American movies, “Ant-Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” you can rest assured that “Doctor Strange” more than lives up to them.
Smartly written with some great characters, humor and action, “Doctor Strange” also has some of the best special effects yet in a Marvel movie. I’m not big on CGI spectacle but this thing does NOT look like every other super-hero film with both amazing big screen wonders and quite clever smaller bits like the Cloak of Levitation, which virtually becomes its own character.
Yes, a lot of what you see has a certain origin-story-familiarity if you’ve watched a lot of super-hero movies but much like it did with “Ant-Man,” Marvel tweaks the formula enough to keep it interesting. In fact, this is the first Marvel movie I’ve seen where I walked out of the theater thinking “That was good but it could have been even better.” The parallels with Tony Stark are obvious but Stephen Strange distinguishes himself as being the first Marvel super-hero who doesn’t want to solve his problems by punching them in the face. As he says in the film, it’s DOCTOR Strange, not MISTER Strange and he takes seriously his oath to do no harm. It’s a charming throwback to the days when super-heroes did uphold a moral code and defeated their enemies as much with their brains as their powers, but it’s also an example of the more sophisticated view of morality underlying the story.
At the core of this story is the paradox that people can do the most awful things for noble ends and that sometimes those ends actually do justify those means. Take a look at our own country. The United States has been one of the greatest forces for good that has ever existed, but it would never have existed itself without the enslavement of Africans and the virtual genocide of American Indians. Unlike “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), where the moral distinctions were fairly arbitrary and ambiguous enough that no one was entirely a villain, “Doctor Strange” strongly suggests that the best thing you can often do is merely manage a problem and that trying to take firm, unyielding moral stands is what leads to catastrophe.
The issue is that between the stuff with the obligatory girlfriend, more than adequately portrayed by Rachel McAdams, and the stuff setting up the sequel, there’s not enough time for that kind of thematic complexity to be satisfyingly explored. Even the relationship with the girlfriend has interesting levels that get a little glossed over. She’s not presented as the great love of Strange’s life. She’s not his soul mate or the woman he’s destined to be with. They used to date. She broke up with him because he was an endearing jerk who became impossible to live with but they managed to remain friends and what holds them together is shared history, not a possible future. That’s far more emotionally mature and complicated than any other Marvel on screen romance, but the film doesn’t have time to get into it too deeply.
In a way, it makes “Doctor Strange” the quintessential Marvel movie. They have seemingly mastered a level of quality control that allows them to churn out an enormous number of motion pictures that are remarkably similar but so well executed and just different enough that you continued to be entertained by them again and again. But they’re content to make a lot of pretty good films and don’t have the ambition to make truly great ones. They don’t want to take those risks.
But considering that no one in Hollywood wants to take those risks and most of the industry cannot consistently make pretty good films, maybe we should be thankful for what we get.
“Dr. Strangelove” take this Throwdown because even a dated classic outdoes the most finely crafted bit of disposable entertainment, but what can Hollywood learn from these movies? That while it would be nice if filmmakers and studios could rediscover the guts to do more than simply assemble a product to meet the demands of a corporate schedule, all we really need are motion pictures that don’t suck.
Is that too much to ask?
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Written by Peter George, Terry Southern and Stanley Kubrick.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, James Earle Jones, Tracy Reed, Jack Creley, Frank Berry, Robert O’Nieil, Glenn Beck, Roy Stephens and Shane Rimmer.
Doctor Strange (2016)
Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill…with a big nod to Steve Ditko.
Directed by Scott Derrickson.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Pythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden and Mark Anthony Brighton…wait, the credits say he was playing Daniel Drumm. The brother of Jericho Drumm? Brother Voodoo? MARVEL, YOU MAGNIFICENT BASTARDS!