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

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

★★★★

Edge of Tomorrow PosterDirector: Doug Liman

Release Date: May 30th, 2014 (UK); June 6th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Science-fiction

Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt

The key to any film baring a looped narrative is the provision of compelling characters. Or, at the very least, engaging performances. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code, for instance. Two aptly mentioned films each of which share an obvious connection with Edge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman’s newest creation that sees the former’s witty humour and the latter’s pulsating mystery combine with a Vantage Point-esque tactical retreading to devise a two hour thrill ride. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt energetically shepherd proceedings through any potentially damaging plot miscues, coming out the other side battle-worn but not out-battled. The jigsaw doesn’t quite fit together with uniform perfection but assembling it is pretty damn fun. In fact, this might be Tom Cruise’s best outing in a decade.

Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) awakens in familiar surroundings: an army barracks at Heathrow Airport, the word “maggot” ringing in his ear. It’s the near future and Earth is under attack. Aliens known as ‘Mimics’ — experts in adapting to combat human strategy — lead the invasion, and Cage’s interaction with one of the beasts has sent him spiralling into a time loop. A glorified military advertiser, the Major must train both body and mind with the aid of war machine Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) in order to quell the fighting and save humankind.

Edge of Tomorrow presents an often pondered scenario, then repeats until fluency reigns. If you were to throw a pebble into a river, would the water change course forever or eventually restore its old pathway? In this case, we swap pebble for soldier and water for war. There’s no grand idea to ponder, at least not a new one, but sometimes sticking with a winning formula ushers forth success and Liman’s film proves that. What the director does infuse, if not originality, is vitality; a freshness that cleanses with bounce and intrigue upon repetition. We watch as Cage lives out the same day countless times over, yet there’s never a sense that what we’re seeing is merely bland duplication. Quite the opposite actually. For every familiar bellow from Master Sergeant Farrell there’s a modicum of change. A card game hidden under bedsheets, for instance. Smartly, sameness becomes a weapon for both Cage and the viewer: he, attempting to win a war, and us, trying to put the puzzle pieces together. Every time he dies, we start over. Undeniably, there’s a method to the litany. (“An enemy that knows the future can’t lose.”)

The way the narrative plays out is akin to that of a video game. There’s a peculiar humour that comes with the frustration of being unable to bypass a certain stage, a mental headache that, once you finally advance to the next level, beckons in excitement. What’ll happen next? This is the sort of mind-jogging that Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay dazzles with, and it’s sort of infectious. “What do we do now?” asks Rita. “I don’t know, we never got this far,” replies Cage with sparkling glee, the audience almost expecting him to follow up with a knowing wink in the camera’s direction.

The pair driving proceedings are having as good a time as any, which helps. Both Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt get stuck in, be it whilst careering through a mass of monstrous treachery or delivering gags with precise timing and just as much effort. The camera stalks Cruise throughout the entire film yet we never tire of seeing his face — admittedly, it is rather amusing watching the Hollywood star’s reactions as he perishes in a variety of ways. Blunt chalks in another talent-affirming performance as the ironclad Full Metal Bitch, getting the better of her co-star more often than not. It’s also worth noting Bill Paxton’s hammed up turn as the aforementioned Farrell, his numerous communications with Cruise increasing in hilarity as time progresses.

Quite surprisingly, Edge of Tomorrow detours down comedy alley a whole lot, hitting more than its fair share of home-runs. There are a number of intense battle scenes that are harsher in meaning than actual visual depiction, but these are balanced out by smatterings of light relief. James Herbert and Laura Jenning’s rapid editorial input comes in handy here, ensuring that there are never any lulls: while we’ve only just let out a guffaw at Cage’s prophetic qualities, the film is on to the next optical spectacle or witty bantering. Cruise and Blunt conjure up a dynamic that not only feels authentic, but that also sparks with comic prowess. The whole thing is quite ridiculous in a way and the film acknowledges so. Since it doesn’t take itself too seriously, we can relax and let the occasional disbelief slide. Playfulness supersedes sternness, and it’s for the best.

That’s not to say Edge of Tomorrow is bulletproof, because it ain’t. The plot teeters along a knife edge at times, hampered by its mass and volume. There’s a lot to take in and not all of it immediately makes sense, such as how easy it is to become encased within a time loop. (Not to mention Rita’s relationship with the concept — she could re-enter the groundhog procedure at any point, surely.) State of the art combat suits are developed to give humans a greater fighting chance against the aliens, yet these technologically superior battle weapons are juiced by batteries. There must not be any electric motor charging sockets around future London. Finger out, Boris.

Doug Liman’s track record since The Bourne Identity is sketchy at best, but this offering is a sure-fire career reviver. His direction is more or less spot on, striving for humour rather than overbearing solemnity. The film’s leading duo deliver on numerous fronts, injecting a fresh lease of life when necessary. The periphery can be a tad rough at times but Edge of Tomorrow will most certainly claim a lofty spot atop a vast amount of summer success lists, at least for the foreseeable future.

Edge of Tomorrow - Cruise and Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

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!