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

The Revenant (2016)

★★★★

The Revenant Poster 1Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Release Date: January 8th, 2016 (US); January 15th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter

Before The Revenant, cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki shot Birdman with such technical wizardry he garnered significant critical acclaim. The floating, stalking style he employed throughout the film manifested itself in the paranoid exterior of Birdman’s central character Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Alejandro González Iñárritu’s newest epic is a visual feast that again transcends simple splendour, similarly mirroring the harrowing and heartening journey of its protagonist, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio).

A brutal insurgence sets the unflinching tone while also highlighting the perversely wonderful landscape. Lubezki tags this opening sequence, which goes on for many minutes, with a nauseating sense of disorientation: arrows splice necks indiscriminately as bodies burn and blister. The conditions are pretty horrid and only get worse, and the audience is not let off lightly — Lubezki’s cinematography might occasionally disperse beauty but when the tough times assume focus, you’re right there with the unlucky Glass (at one point waves literally batter the camera lens).

Describing Glass as unlucky is an understatement. Having led a band of fur trappers around the northern regions of America, a bear attack renders the hunter severely incapacitated. His camp, behind on their expedition following decimation at the hands of a group of Arikara Native Americans searching for their chief’s daughter, collectively decide to leave him in the hands of his half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), the inexperienced Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald, consumed by antipathy and greed, subsequently leaves for Glass for dead.

As such, ongoing themes of retribution (“Revenge is in the creator’s hands”) and guilt (“We all saw it,” says Fitzgerald, trying to redirect blame) loom large. The two coalesce to fund this overriding examination of karma’s role in nature — having invaded the Arikara natives’ land, western hunters find themselves either dead, nearly dead, or morally dying. Even Domhnall Gleeson’s character, the captain of the expedition and arguably one of the more righteous on-screen characters, is burdened by a sense injustice and guilt. The Arikara natives, meanwhile, represent karma in human form, defending their honour and fighting capital-driven colonialism: they are judge, jury and executioner.

The aforementioned bear assault is impressive and harrowing, so much so that Glass’ survival actually beggars belief. You really need to buy into Iñárritu’s oft-included spiritual strand at this point and accept that there is some sort of superior healing going on (spirituality later manifests as a dove emerging from the chest of Glass’ deceased wife and as a perched black crow awaiting death). Given his abject surroundings, numerous gaping wounds and eventual solitude, it is miracle that Glass pulls through — to compound the matter, he wears a bearskin coat which reminds us of his survival instinct.

DiCaprio is great, as has become the norm, but the version of Hugh Glass we meet in The Revenant isn’t all that interesting. That we feel anything more than natural sympathy for the fur trapper is a testament to the actor’s rugged portrayal and, crucially, his commitment. Not the method actory stuff like raw bison chewing or raw carcass sheltering, but the emotional commitment DiCaprio shows from start until finish, by which point he did manage to coax some eye-welling out of me. And that’s pretty good going given we only really see the broken, vengeful side of Glass: he carves Fitzgerald’s name into the landscape as a motivational tool to stay alive.

Hardy itches and grunts his way through a performance that might strike some as scenery chewing (there’s a lot of scenery ripe for chewing), but that genuinely had me gripped. He is uncomfortably magnetic playing a truly evil man who does not appear to have any primal strength, only a lawless prerogative and a heartlessness bred out of self-centred durability. Menace blazes from his eyes: “You just have to blink [to die],” he informs a hurt Glass, fully aware the latter’s eyes cannot possibly hold out. Iñárritu shot in sequence and it shows: you can see weariness increasingly impede upon the actors to the point that they mightn’t even be acting. Will Poulter is also excellent as Fitzgerald’s innocent understudy, a spark of humanity among the viciousness.

Snowy forest locales are reminiscent of Edward Zwick’s Defiance, and are just as haunting too. Skyward shots of trees are frequent, depicting a barrage of tentacles ready to strike and engulf those below. Despite the general vastness, the film has a claustrophobic feel denoting no reprieve and no escape. Lubezki shows white mountainscapes and ice-carpeted valleys akin to those in The Fellowship of the Ring, though the visuals extend beyond scope, incorporating harshness and wince-inducing iconography to great effect. The score, a joint effort from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, is invasive and chilling — this time it is The Return of the King that springs to mind (see Sméagol’s transformation into Gollum) as eerie whistles build disconcerting tension.

In essence, what we’ve got is Max Mad: Fury Road without the exhilarating zing and character depth. The Revenant is a challenging watch, but not necessarily challenging to process. The themes are broad and like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, there is an anomalous quality at play in that the film feels both narratively weightless and technically marvellous. You might consider this Iñárritu’s version of 21st century silent cinema; often suffocated by a lack of engaging verbiage, the movie’s main protagonist never feels fully formed. But for what The Revenant is and for what it is trying to do, this Wild Wild North tale has a tendency to stun.

The Revenant - Leo DiCaprio

Image credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Blogiversary Bash 2015: Consumed by Film

Hey folks!

It’s Cara’s 2nd Blogiversary Bash and I opted to get her a 10 best sequels list as a present. Looks like she has decided to share it with everyone — dig in! I’ve heard it is better that cake.

Silver Screen Serenade

If it wasn't already a party, it totally is now. Because Batman and Robin. DANCING. If it wasn’t already a party, it totally is now. Because Batman and Robin. DANCING.

TGIF, party people! Ready to continue with some Blogiversary Bash goodness? Oh, I know you are. 🙂 I’ve got another superb guest for you today: the soon-to-be uni grad, Adam of Consumed by Film! That’s right, Adam is graduating, so be sure to pop on over to his excellent movie review site and say congrats!

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Out December 13th, 2013)

As presumably everybody already knows, the trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was released yesterday. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a forthcoming trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, opened in cinemas back in December of 2012, and has now taken over $1 billion dollars at the box office. With all the fanfare behind the franchise and excitement starting to build already, I think it is fair to say that by this time next year, The Desolation of Smaug will have come close to that figure again, and perhaps have even exceeded it.

An Unexpected Journey, directed by The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, delivered a more light-hearted Middle-earth (in comparison to Middle-earth during The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and it is more than likely that part two of The Hobbit, which Jackson helms again, will be portrayed in a similar vein. For me, this is by no means a bad thing — the book itself is certainly less downbeat than its successors and therefore the film does not need to be either. The problem I had with An Unexpected Journey was its less-than-unexpected runtime, which approached almost three hours. Jackson had stated in interviews before the film was released that he was looking into using excerpts from Tolkien’s other related writings (Unfinished Tales and such), and as it turned out, he used a few more than he probably should have (such as the scene with bumbling wizard Radagast the Brown and his energetic rabbits). Something tells me The Desolation of Smaug will have a similarly long runtime, but at the end of the day if it means I am sitting for an extra hour in a cinema, why should I be complaining?

“Wait, you’re saying these are just… chocolate coins?”

The trailer for The Desolation of Smaug certainly looks more action-packed than the previous instalment, as Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins and his troupe of companions continue on their journey to the Lonely Mountain and an impending meeting with the dragon, Smaug. We see an array of new characters making an appearance in the trailer (such as Lost’s delightful Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel) and old faces returning (the ever-popular Orlando Bloom is back as the, well… ever-popular Legolas). Stephen Fry finally gets his debut in the franchise as the Master of Lake-town and Martin Freeman’s Sherlock compatriot, Benedict Cumberbatch, plays the dragon — who better (than Kanyon… never mind)? Aside from those four, many of the previous actors from An Unexpected Journey are set to reprise their roles, signalling the return of people like Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield and James Nesbitt as Bofur the dwarf. We are even getting the pleasure of another Andy Serkis performance as Gollum.

Particular events outlined in the book which stick out in the trailer include the barrel scene, the company’s arrival and travels through places such as Mirkwood and Dale, and the eventual confrontation with Smaug. We even get a greater glimpse of the dragon right at the end of the trailer (as opposed to just an eye in the previous film). Once again, it appears that the graphics team and visual departments have all worked wonders on the actual viewing aspect of the piece, as the detail exuding from the trailer alone looks magnificent, an element common in Jackson’s films — they tend to be truly cinematic and spectacular (take The Lovely Bones as an example).

One thing is for sure, at the hands of Peter Jackson, regardless of runtime or unnecessary scenes or any number of frames per second, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is certain to be a visually stunning, exciting and hugely enjoyable watch for all.