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'Doctor Strange': Physician, Heal Thyself
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
02:39PM / Thursday, November 10, 2016
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Benedict Cumberbatch earns his place among the pantheon of comic book superheroes as 'Dr. Strange.'

Back in the day, when I was a weekend Hippie hanging out at a friend's home I deemed the clearing house of all things late 1960s, travelers of all stripe would pop in, flop into a beanbag chair and regale us with tales of their adventures. The chronicle might begin with, "Been going through some really heavy changes, man," often followed by a description of some strange, exotic place where one might foreseeably learn the secret of life. I imagined it to look somewhat like Kamar-Taj, where the title character of "Doctor Strange" goes to seek healing.

In director Scott Derrickson's highly entertaining film based on the famed Marvel Comics character of the same name, we learn how the gifted neurosurgeon, superbly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, earns his place among the pantheon of comic book superheroes. While fans of this universe should doubtlessly be pleased by the filmmaker's very imaginative rendition of what they hold so dear, those of us among the great unwashed needn't be afraid to dive in to this all-embracing, action-adventure.

Although these adaptations from a comic book world well past my nights of reading under the covers with trusty flashlight usually seem as obscure as organic chemistry, "Doctor Strange" at least made me think I understood it. So don't worry if you don't know the difference between the Cloak of Levitation and the Eye of Agamotto. No secret handshake required. It'll all sink in soon enough, and even if it doesn't you'll have seen something rather dazzling and engaging. You also might imbibe enough gobbledygook to name-drop among the young cognoscenti.

Act 1, Scene 1, Dr. Steven Strange is the surgeon you want if, God forbid, you should need one. That is, if he'll see you. Your case has to be something truly horrible ... a challenge that will further recognize the devout egotist's supremacy in matters of the scalpel. Gosh sakes, in the opening scene his lesser colleagues are ready to harvest the organs of some poor soul he then miraculously heals. He bows to the applause that follows, nonetheless disparaging his fellow docs.

The hubris and self-aggrandizement so overflowing that it leaves him little time to even acknowledge the support and love of on-and-off-again girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), he races off for a conference in his Lamborghini Huracan. Naturally, it's raining and, proving that even brilliant people can't safely text and drive, he cruises for a bruising. Ah, 'tis a cruel Shakespearean comeuppance and an apt lesson for adolescents of all ages that screenwriters C. Robert Cargill, John Spaights and director Derrickson teach.

So the question is, what does a noted surgeon whose career seems kaput do when there's not a sawbones in the world as good as he to fix him up. Well, that's easy. Following research into a Far Eastern cure he's heard of, perhaps subliminally coupled with the advice of Bob Segar's 1975 song, he heads for Katmandu. There, in the dusky bailiwick of Kamar-Taj resides the epicenter of answers to question we mortals wouldn't even know to ask. Of course no such place could exist without a leader named The Ancient One.

Intriguingly portrayed by a bald-as-Sigourney Weaver Tilda Swinton, she is the guru supreme, the Grand Kahuna, the knower of all things esoteric and mystical ... smarter even than Frank Morgan's Wizard of Oz, I betcha. Yet, truth is, even though she's essentially the keeper of universal harmony, she's got her troubles, too. But whew, what good timing. Figured into her decision to put the good doctor on the road to find out is her plan to save humankind from Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius, the dark Yin to her radiant Yang. Or at least that's what she tells us.

Be prepared for a kaleidoscopic panoply of all known and as yet unpropounded philosophies, wittily posited amidst a stunning swirl of great, story-enriching special effects. Although I rarely advise spending the extra coin to see the 3-D version, here I strongly suggest dipping into the coffee can to fund that extra dimension. It's not that a lot of stuff comes jumping out at your nose ... just one orange butterfly, actually. However, there is a textural beauty to Derrickson's highly creative, fantastical landscape that makes it worthy of those pain-in-the-neck glasses.

But for all of the electrifying fireworks and the requisite amount of kung fu fighting injected to please those so-inclined, the cherry on top of this snazzy, sci-fi excursion is Cumberbatch's fine characterization. It's always pleasing to see a narcissistic bully humbled and, in light of the recent presidential election, even more vicariously gratifying when, instructed to the error of his ways, he turns a new leaf and achieves grace by his good works.

OK, maybe I've seen too many movies. But such cautious optimism comes of seeing movies like "Doctor Strange." We can only hope that fact is indeed stranger than fiction.

"Doctor Strange," rated PG-13, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Scott Derrickson and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Running time: 115 minutes

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