October 27, 2016
It is a testament to the marketing genius (at least!) of Marvel Studios that what we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has forever changed the way audiences interact with and approach superhero films; the way the individual films overlap and reference each other, weaving together story lines and plot points, however slight those points may be, forms a massive part of the appeal of a Marvel film. But whilst the Avengers, and the individual films around those key members, form the central pillars of this universe, Marvel needs superhero movies like Doctor Strange to break things up a bit, and give audiences a glimpse of the superhero world beyond the sci-fi and action, and into the metaphysical.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a gifted if egotistical neurosurgeon, whose world is shattered when he loses the use of his hands. After exhausting all the possibilities that Western medicine has to offer, his search for a healing miracle leads him to Kamar-Taj, which he initially believes to be only a centre for healing. However, Kamar-Taj is much more than that – led by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) it is home to a community deeply entrenched in mysticism, the study of magic, and sorcery, where its members learn how to harness this magic to warp through space, explore the multiverse, and control energy and matter. Doctor Strange (don’t call him “Mr.”) has to decide whether or not to follow the path of the other Masters and defend the Earth against the evil forces of the Dark Dimension, or return to his comfortable former life.
The draw for Doctor Strange has been its emphasis on the supernatural, the ‘magic’ that Strange draws on, rather than the technology that makes Iron Man or Ant-Man possible, or the scientific experimentation that saw the emergence of Captain America or the Hulk. The multiverse has been hinted at in previous Marvel films (Thor and The Avengers in particular), but here it is treated as mystical, rather than through the lens of something closer to science-fiction. This supernatural element is what led to Scott Derrickson coming on to direct, although within the constraints of the original comics and the Marvel aesthetic there isn’t a huge amount of space for his individual vision to come through. However, the enthusiasm for the material, the narrative, and the Doctor Strange character are overwhelmingly evident, and it makes for enjoyable viewing – the film never lacks in energy.
The thoughts and questions proffered by The Ancient One on the nature of time, space, matter, and nature truly have a philosophical element to them and makes the initial encounter and following conversations between herself, Strange, and the other Masters of the Mystic Arts intriguing, but it is left to the visuals to illustrate these ideas. It’s the logical choice for a superhero film, and the visuals are truly spectacular, but some of the attention payed to the visuals could have been diverted into developing the characters. Cumberbatch gives a solid performance as Doctor Strange, but the character bears a more than slight similarity to the smug superiority of Tony Stark, as well as to Cumberbatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes; even Rachel McAdam’s Christine Palmer, a fellow surgeon and Strange’s love interest, serves as another version of Pepper Potts – selfless and the moral compass, except McAdam’s plays such a small role here we might not have noticed her absence. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo provides an excellent, serious counterpart to Strange’s (humorous) conceit. The biggest disappointment was the underutilisation of Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt; Hannibal) who has shown himself so adept at playing a complex, unnerving villains, that the total underdevelopment of Kaecilius (former apprentice of the Ancient One who now seeks immortality) is almost criminal. Like everything else in this film, he looked amazing and commanded attention whenever on screen, but it was a wasted opportunity.
Doctor Strange is an entertaining outing, and the running time flies by, but overall it felt like the purpose of this film was purely to establish the plot of the sequel (and we are left in no doubt as to what that will be). It promises even bigger things to come, when it should have focused on wowing us now. Still, it is one of the bolder, visually dramatic additions to the MCU and well worth seeing on the big screen.
October 17, 2016
Rarely does a documentary leave you with a feeling of such unbridled joy, but it would be impossible to watch this particular documentary and be left feeling otherwise. Poi E: The Story of Our Song is as upbeat and life-affirming as the song that inspired it.
In 1984, ‘Poi E’ became the first song to reach number one on the New Zealand charts written and released entirely in Te Reo Māori. It remained in the charts for thirty-four weeks, outsold Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and has been in the New Zealand Top Ten every decade for the past thirty years. The song was co-composed by Dalvanius Prime and Māori language composer Ngoi Pēwhairangi. Dalvanius, with an international career in R&B had then recently returned home to care for his ailing mother. This incident was something of a trigger, sparking a desire within him to forge a stronger connection with his Māori heritage. He sought out Ngoi, they composed ‘Poi E’, and Dalvanius convinced the Patea Māori Club to perform and record the song, hustling the locals and business owners of Patea to lend money to the cause.
It would be too easy to simply consign ‘Poi E’ as just a musical phenomenon, although it certainly is that -it’s incredibly catchy, synthesising traditional Māori waiata and 80s pop; it exudes happiness, and will leave anyone grinning. The story behind the song, however, and the impact it had, go far beyond just breaking musical records. Director Tearepa Kahi has lovingly crafted a documentary that traces Dalvanius Prime’s extraordinary life, whilst celebrating an important aspect of Māori culture. The impact ‘Poi E’ had not only in the charts, but in fostering the acceptance of Māori language and culture in New Zealand (particularly popular media) is not lost. All this is set against the backdrop of the small town and tight-knit community of Patea, almost ruined by a financial crisis, but revitalised thanks this song.
The influence of Ngoi Pēwhairangi is strongly felt, not only as composer, but as a Māori language teacher and advocate. Having passed away long before this film was even conceived of, respect for her and for the language she taught permeates this documentary. Dalvanius himself is an immensely fascinating, entertaining character – archival footage and interviews, as well as interviews with those who knew him at the Patea Māori Club paint a picture of a highly driven, talented, warm-hearted, sometimes stubborn, but always passionate man; his desire to reconnect with his heritage, as well as his personal struggles and losses, provide some of the films most poignant moments.
Poi E is full of memorable characters – Aunty Bib and Nana Bub, Joe Moana (the guy who could do ‘the Michael Jackson thing’), the community of Patea, and even musician Stan Walker and filmmaker Taika Waititi, who both recall ‘Poi E’ as being a huge influence on their youth; anyone who’s familiar with Waititi’s Boy (2010) may already be a little familiar with ‘Poi E’! There are plenty of laughs to be had, and the sense of community embodied by the Patea Māori Club flows through Poi E, embracing the audience, and leaving you with a warm glow.
Towards the end of the film, Waititi and Walker laugh about how everyone knows the tune, but no one knows the lyrics. So the film obliges, offering us something of an encore with the lyrics translated, and confirms just how much depth there really is to ‘Poi E’. This is not just the story of a thing of the past – ‘Poi E’ continues and will always continue, multi-generational, with The Story of Our Song as its newest, vibrant, emotional chapter.