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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Siraj Syed reviews Doctor Strange: Surgery and sorcery go hand in hand

Siraj Syed reviews Doctor Strange: Surgery and sorcery go hand in hand

Comics can be victims of overkill, especially when they traverse the distance from page to screen. Casting might be (mis)guided by name and fame, when suitability is of greater import. Marvel’s Doctor Strange, with part Disney talent and full distribution channels in tow, is ridden with both pitfalls. It’s a marvel then that the film manages to serve above par, enjoyable fare, for which credit largely goes to the mind-boggling special effects and CGI, and a few good performances (no, not Bernard Cumberbatch, though his fans might find this lack of approval outrageous).

In Kathmandu, Nepal, the sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) and his zealot gang enter the secret compound called Kamar-Taj (you would never have guessed the name from the pronunciation; Taj...really?) and murder its librarian, keeper of ancient and mystical texts. They tear and steal pages describing a ritual, from a book belonging to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer who has lived for an unknown time and taught them all at Kamar-Taj, including Kaecilius (you would never...), the ways of the mystic arts. The Ancient One pursues the traitors, but Kaecilius escapes with the pages.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), an acclaimed neurosurgeon, loses the use of his hands in a near-fatal car accident. His medical colleague and former lover, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), tries to help him move on, but Strange, instead, wants to heal his injuries, at any cost. After months trying experimental surgeries on his hands and using-up all his resources, Strange seeks out Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a paraplegic who, mysteriously, was able to walk again, after treatment at his own hospital was unsuccessful. Pangborn directs Strange to Kamar-Taj, in Kathmandu.

Strange heads for the mountain city, but nobody knows about Kamar-Taj there. During his search, he is attacked by thugs, who want to steal his watch, a gift from Christine, that is very dear to him. He tries to fight them off, but is over-powered, when another sorcerer, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), comes to his rescue. Mordo takes him to The Ancient One, who shows Strange her power, revealing the astral plane and other dimensions, such as the Mirror Dimension. Strange begs her to teach him, and she eventually agrees despite his arrogance, which reminds her of Kaecilius.

Strange begins his tutelage under the Ancient One and Mordo, and learns from the ancient books in the library, which is now protected by Master Wong. Strange learns that Earth is protected from other dimensions by a spell formed from three buildings, called Sanctums, located strategically in New York City, London, and Hong Kong. The task of the sorcerers is to protect the Sanctums, though Pangborn chose to forego this responsibility, in favour of channelling mystical energy into getting walking again. Strange will have to do the same, to regain use of his hands.

Story by Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour, Prometheus) and Scott Derrickson is turned into a screenplay by            Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (Scott’s ‘Sinister’ guy). Cargill’s been a waiter, a video store clerk, a travel agent, a camp counsellor, an airline reservation agent, a sandwich artist, a day care provider, a voice-actor and, a free-lance writer and film critic. Cargill began his career with Ain’t it Cool News, under the pseudonym Massawyrm (you have to by him beer to find out the origin of this enchanting moniker), writing there for over a decade, subsequently becoming a staff writer for, and co-founding the animated movie review site,

They begin with a time agnostic scene in a kind of ancient temple, get into a barrage of chases and fights laden with mirror effects across modern-day America/Europe, with a plethora of breathtaking  ‘folding’ visuals, take us to a life and death operation, stay in present day real time for a few more scenes, insert a slick, albeit ghastly car accident, dwell on that hospital location a few more scenes, with an egotistical surgeon, his black colleague and the woman who is in unrequited love with him. All these goings-on are very much the stuff that TV series are made of, minus the super-natural. But hold your horses. Episode 1 is just the prelude (should be ‘prequel’, shouldn’t it?; no, a prequel might be in the pipeline as a whole film; you never know).

Easy does it. Start with some light rings and sparklers. Then get into 3D ‘forged’ weapons, followed by a magic cape (Superman, are you reporting it stolen?). From more dimensions than we knew, move on to astral planes and more universes than one (multiverses; and no, that doesn’t mean long poems). Little or no back stories find their way into the scenario.

Director Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil) asserted in media interviews that he did not want any stereo-typing in his film, and yet look at what he formulates: an American is mugged in Kathmandu, the sympathetic doctor and the trusting student are black, the man who has an inscrutable face and never laughs or smiles is Chinese (the character is depicted as Strange's Asian, "tea-making manservant" in the comics, a racial stereotype that Derrickson “did not want”), the three sanctums are located in New York, London and HongKong, the main villain is a James Bond baddie. Some slices of humour are tasty, others lost in the mumbling. Great Scott! Derrickson has cast Tilda Swinton as an Androgynous, ancient, Celtic Sorcerer and configured her like a Buddhist monk. He wrote the part specifically for the actress—the character was a Tibetan man in the comic. How good a move is that?

Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch (Black Mass, The Imitation Game, The Hobbit, August: Osage County, Star Trek into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave) has oodles and oodles of talent and, if he’s spoken his own lines in this film, has already mastered the ’merk’n accent. He’s just out of sorts, once he gets to Kathmandu. Okay, so he spent a year teaching English at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Darjeeling, India, during an education break. So? Here’s a good example of how an unusually structured face and awkwardly waving arms come in the way of credibility.

Cumberbatch also ‘portrays’, the trans-universal villainous entity, Dormammu, though you’ll have to look carefully to catch the similarity. The actor himself suggested that he take on the role to Derrickson, feeling that having the character be a "horrific" reflection of Strange would work better than just "being a big ghoulish monster". To create the character, Cumberbatch provided motion-capture reference for the visual effects team, and his voice was blended with that of another (uncredited) British actor, whom Derrickson described as having "a very deep voice". (Don’t all villains have gravelly, double bassy voices? So who is our half door-keeper uncle, Dormammu ? Your guess is as good as mine).

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity, 12 Years a Slave) is quietly intense, in preparation for Part II. Rachel McAdams (Sherlock Holmes, A Most wanted Man, Southpaw) scores high on the emotion quotient, but is lost when the proceedings around her become para-normal. Benedict Wong (Dirty Pretty Things, Johnny English Reborn, The Martian) has maybe three good moments that make his role meaningful, and what’s wong with that? Michael Stuhlbarg (Men in Black, Pawn Sacrifice, Blue Jasmine, Trumbo) plays Strange’s professional rival and Benjamin Bratt is cast Jonathan Pangborn, the paraplegic.

Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Clash of the Titans, The Three Musketeers, The Hunt) comes with a canvas face make-up that took 2 ½ hours to apply, and his eyes are as sinister as ever. Tilda (Katherine Matilda) Swinton (the Curious case of Benjamin Button, The Grand Budapest Hotel, A Bigger Splash) turns 55 tomorrow. How apt! Only one so adept at her craft would have carried the transcendental philosophy spouting, and, alternately, multi-dimensional sparring with aplomb.

Music is by Michael Giacchino, cinematography Ben Davis (Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron; using an Arri Alexa 65 camera) and editing by Wyatt Smith and Sabrina Plisco. Davis does a splendid job, and the moments when the background is hazy or laced with dull colours are probably a post-production issue. Similarly, you can’t blame Smith and Plisco for the repetitive nature of the clashes and moves, if that is what the d/ire/octor ordered. Mercifully, one sanctum battle is kept to a fleeting minimum, otherwise the 115 minutes would have felt much longer. I know that the film is about absence of time and temporal freezing, but when you start looking at your watch instead of the IMAX screen, time assumes  essence.

Marvel addicts will hail the latest batch of superheroes and dupervillains. Such targeted movies are made with demographics and psychographics in mind, as much as the possibilities unravelled by state-of-the-art computer effects. Those with lesser enthusiasm might find the narrative occasionally cumber-some

Statutory warning: Do not leave the auditorium till the credit titles are Thor oughly over.

Rating: ***


Doctor’s Strange back-story

Over 50 years after Steve Ditko created the character, almost forty years after the television film, Dr. Strange, and ten years after its animated avatar, Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme, this is the first, full-fledged film version, in 3D. A film based on the Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange was initially listed as being in pre-production in 1986. By 1989, Alex Cox had co-written a script with Stan Lee. The script had the character travelling to the Fourth Dimension, before facing the villain, Dormammu, on Easter Island. A film using this script was almost made by Regency, but the company's films were distributed by Warner Bros. at the time, who was in a dispute with Marvel over merchandising.

By 1992, Wes Craven had been retained to write and direct Doctor Strange for release in 1994-95. In 1995, David S. Goyer had completed a script for the film. By 1997, Columbia Pictures had purchased the film rights and Jeff Welch was working on a new screenplay. By 2000, Columbia dropped Doctor Strange. By June 2001, Dimension Films acquired the film rights. However, by August 2001, Miramax Films acquired the film rights from Dimension. In 2005, Paramount Pictures acquired Doctor Strange from Miramax, as part of Marvel Studios' attempt to independently produce their own films. At the time, the film was projected to have a budget of no more than $165 million.

In 2009, Marvel hired writers to help come up with creative ways to launch its lesser-known properties, including Doctor Strange. In 2010, Marvel Studios hired Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer to write Doctor Strange. While promoting Transformers: Dark of the Moon, in 2011, actor Patrick Dempsey indicated he was lobbying to play the title character. By March 2014, the directors Marvel was considering were believed to be Andrews, Levine, and Scott Derrickson. In June 2014, Derrickson was chosen to direct the film. Shooting began in Nepal on November 4, 2015, under the working title Checkmate. Strange are the ways of Hollywood.


Steve Ditko

In 1955 Ditko joined Atlas Comics, the company that would metamorphose into what is Marvel today. Ditko drew for 17 Atlas titles, including Two-Gun Western – his very first collaboration with Stan Lee. Lee had an idea for a new superhero, initially called Spiderman, and had asked Jack Kirby to sketch the accompanying art. But Lee found Kirby’s work too straight, too heroic for this character, so he recruited Ditko instead.

Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy no. 15 (August 1962). Around the same time, Ditko developed a character, Doctor Strange, published in Marvel’s Strange Tales title. Strange was a sorcerer who used magic to travel into other dimensions of existence. An arrogant Manhattan surgeon, whose delicate hands were injured in a car crash, Strange travelled the world in search of a cure, and, instead, discovered the unknown.

Ditko drew his inspiration for Strange from classic films, like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), and souvenir objects he found in Greenwich Village junk shops.

His politics also began to seep into his work, with stories that saw ‘Spiderman’ Peter Parker scoff at protesting students, and demand more money from monstrous newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson (a caricature of Stan Lee, who was his editor at Atlas).

He retired from freelance work in 1998, though he’s kept publishing occasional solo work into his 80s. In 2007, Jonathan Ross made a documentary, In Search of Steve Ditko. Like his friend/foe Stan Lee, Ditko has had a long life, turning 89 in two days ago.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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