Warcraft (2016)

★★★

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Warcraft PosterDirector: Duncan Jones

Release Date: May 30th, 2016 (UK); June 10th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Toby Kebbell, Dominic Cooper

It has become the norm: independent filmmakers, fresh off a critical and commercial doozy, cast as the head of a cinematic juggernaut. Colin Trevorrow went from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World. Gareth Edwards, Monsters to Godzilla and now Star Wars. And here’s Duncan Jones, a director with science fiction sensibilities and a penchant for creating smart stories, now perched atop the film version of arguably the biggest online role-playing game in the world. Warcraft has been years in the making (10, in fact, but at least three under the tutelage of Jones) and you can see that effort on-screen. You can also see and feel the director’s touch, his love of nuance and, as was the case in both Moon and Source Code, his heralding of complex characters.

Sure, Warcraft isn’t the most original fantasy movie ever made, and sure, there are some significant problems. But Jones brings a maturity that would have likely been missing had a less crafty filmmaker been in charge. Thank goodness too, because that maturity affords viewers the opportunity to engage with those on-screen. Those being: Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a charismatic warrior charged with defending the world of Azeroth when a Horde of rampaging orcs appear via gigantic portal. One of the orcs is Durotan (Toby Kebbell) whose wife is heavily pregnant with their child and whose conscience defies the evil antics of leader Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). Essentially, the latter wants to sap the life from humans and use that energy to further power the aforementioned portal, paving the way for an unstoppable orc army.

It’s a lot to take in, especially when you consider the legion of other characters I haven’t yet mentioned: half-orc half-human Garona (Paula Patton), Guardian mage Medivh (Ben Foster), young apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper). There are more still, and you can see the mythology’s depth throughout the opening half hour as Jones and co-writer Charles Leavitt introduce each chess piece. What this means is a period of bamboozlement for us uninformed lot — early scenes are stitched together like multicoloured patchwork, at first confusing and a bit tough to get one’s head around. But to Jones and Leavitt’s credit, events become easier to follow when the individual story strands merge to create a cohesive whole.

In light of the ongoing refugee crisis, you might draw conclusions from the movie’s explicit imagery depicting the movement of populations. But there doesn’t seem to me to be any political point-scoring going on. Quite the opposite given we see good and bad on both sides, something reflected often in the real world though not necessarily promoted by Hollywood. Humans and orcs are treated equally: Jones opens on Durotan and his wife Draka (Anna Galvin) having a laugh and joke about their appearance. It’s made clear that these gargantuan creatures endure the same frailties and hold the same grudges as we do. Some of the orcs are evil, not because they’re orcs but because they’re evil and because they champion power-hungry agendas. Others like Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky) are more subtly shaded, though the reasons why are best left to the movie.

Of course, the human characters are ultimately the most sympathetic — fitting, given they are on the defensive throughout — and you get caught up in their plight. This is mainly down to the work of Fimmel as Lothar, a thoroughly effective protagonist with a magnificent weary war face, and Patton, whose sturdy Garona acts as a genetic bridge between the two races. Their interactions initially point towards a conventional destination but, again, the filmmakers explore a credibly different route. Lothar has been cast as the movie’s Aragorn and there are similarities between the two, however it is Cooper’s King Llane who really dons that crown: like Return of the King Aragorn, he values loyalty and manifests as an amiable ruler at a time where figures of power in real life are not so amiable (“War with us will solve nothing”).

Warcraft does struggle to evade the shadow of Peter Jackon’s trilogy, especially in an aesthetic sense. An extended fight sequence around halfway through might as well be a deleted scene from the franchise, set in a dark ashen gravel-scape resembling Mordor (there’s even an enormous fiery mountain in the background). Look out for an Isengard-esque construction shot, and listen out for a “for Frodo” declaration. Perhaps the comparisons are unfair but everyone who goes to see Warcraft will have seen The Lord of the Rings in some form and the similarities are tough to shake. Having said that, the visuals are generally impressive; minute details differentiate the orcs and make the individual CG characters stand out — a particularly evil baddie sports wolf skull shoulder pads and a pitch black beard. Kebbell, it should be noted, puts in another commendable motion-capture performance.

Paul Hirsch’s editing style occasionally jars as one scene fades to the next but there are fun visual snippets for fans of the game, including an aerial shot that jumps from town to town showing the damage done by a rampaging orc army. And I should point out a spot of superb editing towards the end: Hirsch flirts between two separate inter-species battles, highlighting the need for civilisations to solve their own issues before causing problems elsewhere. Flawed, somewhat parochial systems of hierarchy — Khadgar’s struggles as a young mage; the slave state we see Garona in when she first appears — would have benefited from deeper analysis had more time been available.

The film is bookended by two “Warcraft” title cards, the first of which arrives bearing a summer popcorn aura. Big, brassy letters. A booming score. Jones’ movie opens with that event cinema feel and almost capitalises thereafter. Even though it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights set by the superior fantasy blockbusters of yesteryear, Warcraft wins favour in its attempt to establish captivating, varied characters (the feature passes the Bechdel test during a conversation between Garona and Ruth Negga’s Lady Taria). It’s three stars but three very good stars, and a very enjoyable, surprisingly engaging, two hours at the cinema.

Warcraft - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Who Should Direct Bond 24?

It’s only been a few months since Skyfall hit cinemas around the world and delighted audiences and critics alike. Sam Mendes, boasting the likes of American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road, took the helm and directed arguably the best Bond film to date — full of intrigue, emotion and good, old fashion Bond-esque action and gadgetry.

But the question now is: who’s next? With Sam Mendes making it clear that he has no intention to return to direct a Skyfall sequel, the door is wide open and names have been thrown about with reason (and without) ever since. Everyone from the enigmatic and charismatic Quentin Tarantino to Zero Dark Thirty’s Katheryn Bigelow to Britain’s new favourite director Danny Boyle has had their name attached to the franchise.

The way I see it, there are three people who I personally would love to see put their spin on Bond. I have not taken into account any possible schedule clashes (Bond 24 is thought to be in line for a 2015 release), this is purely fantasy film booking on my part.

Up first, the most likely candidate for the job — Christopher Nolan.

“I’m looking… and I’m seeing Bond.”

With reports surfacing this week that Chris Nolan is the producers’ primary target for the hot seat, it would be far from surprising if he did end up taking the reins. Nolan is said to be a big fan of Daniel Craig (who is also in line to reprise his role as James Bond) and has in the past expressed interest in the job, seemingly making this a match made in Bond heaven. Nolan, coming off the hugely successful and critically acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, would certainly have the name value and clout to obtain as much financial backing as he needed and would also be accustomed to the unrelenting buzz and hype which surrounds the franchise. In terms of his directorial style, I think it is fair to say that Nolan would make an excellent Bond overseer: he often delves into revenge and terrorism with characters who are somewhat flawed and out for vengeance (as with his Dark Knight films), or idealism and deception (the characteristics of his 2006 film, The Prestige). Plus, Nolan has previously stated his belief in shooting using film rather than digital methods, making an alignment with Bond inevitable for nostalgic purposes on its 50th anniversary, right?

Next, fairly inexperienced but very good — Rupert Wyatt.

“One planet down, one to go.”

Formerly a producer, in 2007 Wyatt turned his head to directing when he spent the year creating his first feature film, The Escapist, which premièred at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2008. Admittedly I have yet to see The Escapist, however based on its reception from critics it was a fine outing for Wyatt in his first directorial role. However, my basis for Wyatt being the right man to steer Bond 24 is in his 2011 Planet of the Apes reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco, Freida Pinto and Andy Serkis. Not only did Wyatt successfully create a fresh, vibrant Apes origin story, he did so with style and elegance. Balancing the action with just enough humour and drama was the key to Wyatt receiving the audiences’ admiration and in my opinion he did this and more. Wyatt, although young and perhaps not experienced enough in the view of some in regards to handling such a massive film phenomenon in Bond, would offer a new take on the franchise in the same vein as he did with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If he gets the nod count me in.

Finally, my wildcard pick — Duncan Jones.

“Bond you say? Pfft, easy.”

I do not recall seeing Duncan Jones’ name mentioned anywhere in relation to Bond 24, which is somewhat surprising to me given not only his small-yet-brilliant film portfolio, but also his enthusiasm towards the industry. Much like Wyatt before, Jones has only directed two feature-length films in his short directorial career, but the two he has bestowed us with thus far are exceedingly good. First, Moon in 2009, starring Sam Rockwell, is a science fiction drama film which was nominated for two BAFTA awards, with Jones winning for Best Outstanding Début. It was showered with praise from critics, and for me was a truly astonishing debut which focused more on emotion and drama to grasp the audience, as opposed to thrills. Instead, the thrills came two years later in the form of Source Code, making it the opposite of Moon in that regard — a compelling and heart-thumping science fiction film which again received vast amounts of acclaim. So where do two science fiction films fit into the Bond mould? Well, two simple sci-fi films is not how I see it. I see two completely different films — one based on ideas, materialism and realism, the other fuelled by a clever, pacy and exhilarating script — both carrying emotional weight and a sense of character attachment (a must-have in a successful Bond film). Duncan Jones is the most promising director in Britain in my eyes, and I would love those eyes to see a Bond film made by him.

Empire magazine recently provided their input in the Bond director situation and outlined 14 potential candidates for the job. Two of my preferred choices made it in, what about yours? Check it out!

Gravity (Out November 7th, 2013)

He’s been there once and he enjoyed it so much that he has decided to return. That is right, George Clooney is back on the big screen this autumn — in space. Unlike Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film Solaris starring Clooney, Gravity is a brand new script written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, his first film in seven years.

Set in space, Gravity follows the progress of astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) — a veteran serving his last mission — and medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) — a rookie on her first Space Shuttle outing. The film is set for release on October 4th in the Unites States, therefore we do not know much about the plot at the time of writing other that what is shown in the recently unveiled teaser trailer (below): whilst carrying out a spacewalk — activities conducted by an astronaut outside his/her spacecraft — Kowalsky and Stone’s shuttle explodes leaving both space inhabitants stranded.

There have been countless films creates depicting helpless individuals trapped in space — either on a planet or in a shuttle. Recently, Apollo 18 graced our screens: a fictional portrayal of events after the cancelled Apollo 18 mission. Before that, Duncan Jones’ impeccable debut film Moon starring Sam Rockwell carried the mystique and tension of the stuck in space scenario. Going even further back, Event Horizon, Silent Running and Alien are all examples that the stranded in space genre — although still intriguing — is not a new one.

“Ten across, four letters, ‘to unveil one’s buttocks’ — any ideas?”

However, the commonality between all of the aforementioned films with which Gravity does not appear to share is that the helpless characters were trapped in a spaceship or on a planet, whereas Cuarón has delivered Clooney and Bullock to us suspended and floating in space. All signs point towards this being the case for the vast majority of the motion picture, which is something I personally have not seen before.

The trailer offers very little in the way of plot development, but a whole lot in regards to visuals, which are simply stunning. This should not come as a surprise to those who have seen Cuarón’s last outing in the director’s chair, Children of Men, which encapsulated and illustrated a dystopian Earth both effortlessly and beautifully. He was also the mastermind behind the highly regarded third act in the Harry Potter film franchise: Prisoner of Azkaban.

Alfonso Cuaron
“This is so heavy, stupid gravity!”

With a similar budget to Children of Men (Children of Men came in at around $76 million and Gravity has hit the $80 million mark) and with two very accomplished and impressive actors at the helm (albeit after a number of cast changes — Robert Downey Jr and Natalie Portman were once the leading candidates), Gravity has the potential to blow audiences away. Having originally been scheduled for a 2012 release and been pushed back a year to 2013, I think it is about time the Gravity shuttle was grounded so that we can all witness Alfonso Cuarón at work once again.