Movie Reviews: 'Doctor Strange' and 'Hacksaw Ridge'

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in a scene from the movie "Doctor Strange." Photo: CNS/Disney Benedict Cumberbatch stars in a scene from the movie "Doctor Strange." Photo: CNS/Disney

Recently reviewed by Catholic News Service

Doctor Strange

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - What Tilda Swinton can conceive, Benedict Cumberbatch can achieve in "Doctor Strange" (Disney).

As directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, this first big-screen adventure for the Marvel Comics superhero who debuted in print back in 1963 showcases a surfeit of magical nonsense and New Age rigmarole concerning spell-casting, astral bodies and the like. Accordingly, it's not at all suitable fare for impressionable youngsters.

When a car accident severely damages his hands, blighting his career, brilliant but egotistical neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) feverishly pursues conventional treatments. But none holds out any hope of restoring his steady touch.

Desperately frustrated, he lashes out at the one sympathetic figure in his life, his long-suffering ex-girlfriend and current colleague, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). The resulting breach makes his emotional isolation complete.

Acting on a tip from recovered paraplegic Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), Strange travels to Nepal to meet the guru (Swinton) Pangborn claims brought about his seemingly miraculous cure. Her followers refer to this bald, and otherwise unnamed, personage as "the Ancient One."

When Strange's skeptical materialism proves a hard nut to crack, the Ancient One launches him on a series of giddy rides across the cosmos, trips during which the audience might be forgiven for half expecting him to run into the ghost of Timothy Leary or the lineup of Jefferson Airplane circa "White Rabbit."

Convinced by these odd odysseys, Strange places himself, more or less wholeheartedly, under his new spiritual master's tutelage. He receives a mix of martial-arts and metaphysical training from one of her disciples, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He also gets some arcane book-learning courtesy of her comically poker-faced and reticent librarian, Wong (Benedict Wong).

Instead of the healing he was initially searching for, however, Strange discovers a sort of otherworldly vocation as he becomes a warrior in the struggle between his newfound mentor and Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One's who has embraced the forces of evil.

"Doctor Strange" features some spectacular special effects reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's "Inception." And the acting rises well above the genre average, placing it in the company of the best "Iron Man" outings.

Yet, in order to enjoy these assets, viewers of faith will have to overlook all the mumbo-jumbo interwoven into the script, which Derrickson penned along with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. Thus, only those mature teens able to treat such elements as on a par with the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys -- a task not made easier by the fact that the hooey on offer here comes decked out in the trappings of Buddhism -- should be given the green light.

The film contains pervasive occult dialogue and action, some stylized violence, fleeting gory images and a handful of crude and crass terms.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Hacksaw Ridge movie still
Andrew Garfield stars in a scene from the movie "Hacksaw Ridge." Photo: CNS/Cross Creek Pictures

Hacksaw Ridge

By Joseph McAleer, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

That statement is vividly realized in "Hacksaw Ridge" (Summit), which recounts the extraordinary heroism of Army medic Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) during the Battle of Okinawa in the closing days of World War II.

A committed Christian and conscientious objector who refused to bear arms, Doss was nonetheless eager to serve his country. He single-handedly saved the lives of more than 75 wounded soldiers while under constant enemy fire, earning him the Medal of Honor, awarded by Congress.

Director Mel Gibson, working from a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, presents his fact-based drama in two parts. The first probes Doss' childhood and upbringing in rural Virginia, while the second unfolds on Okinawa, atop a jagged cliff nicknamed "Hacksaw Ridge" for the brutality of the Japanese offensive there.

War is indeed hell, as Gibson pulls no punches in extreme battle scenes reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan." Awash in blood and gore, with heads blown off and soldiers set afire by napalm, the violence is no doubt realistic, but will necessarily restrict this film's audience to those adults willing to endure such sights.

We first meet Desmond as a spirited boy (Darcy Bryce) who is losing a fistfight with his older brother, Hal (Roman Guerriero). Desmond picks up a brick and strikes Hal, knocking him out cold.

Recoiling in horror, the boy fears he has killed his sibling (shades of Cain and Abel). He hasn't, but the incident shakes him to the core, and inspires his steadfast pacifism.

"To take another man's life is the greatest sin of all," his kindly mother, Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), reminds her son, citing their beliefs as Seventh-day Adventists.

Fast forward 15 years, and both sons have enlisted, to the dismay of their abusive father, Tom (Hugo Weaving). A veteran of World War I, he knows firsthand the horror and futility of war.

But Desmond is keen to play his part, despite the misgivings of his fiancee, local nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). "While others are taking life, I will be saving it," he reassures her.

Needless to say, Desmond faces ridicule and beatings by his fellow recruits at boot camp, who regard him as a freak and coward. The platoon's leader, Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn), and the company's commander, Capt. Glover (Sam Worthington), make his life miserable, and lobby for his discharge.

But Doss holds firm, calling himself a "conscientious cooperator." A military court rules that he may serve as a medic, and not bear arms.

Once on Okinawa, Doss proves his mettle and earns the respect of his platoon as he runs back and forth on the battlefield to remove the wounded. His nearly superhuman actions would seem farfetched were they not true.

As might be expected with Gibson at the helm, "Hacksaw Ridge" does not sideline Doss' religious convictions, which are integral to his story and his performance on Okinawa. With Dorothy's Bible in his breast pocket, Desmond utters the cry, "Please God, let me get one more," as he repeatedly plunges back into the abyss.

References to baptism and the resurrection give "Hacksaw Ridge" a transcendent, messianic quality that draws comparison with Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." As did that film, "Hacksaw Ridge" uses the pain and bloodletting it portrays to inspire viewers with a redeeming Christian message.

The film contains graphic war violence with much gore, brief rear male nudity, a scene of marital sensuality and considerable profane and crude language.

The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.

McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.