Warcraft (2016)


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 East (2013)


The East PosterDirector: Zal Batmanglij

Release Date: June 28th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Thriller

Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell

“You put your first choice in the middle, because putting it last is expected,” asserts private intelligence boss Sharon. The line is intended as a foreshadowing of upcoming covert antics, but unfortunately ultimately applies to The East in a more fundamental manner. After a strong opening compounded by some tense half-way happenings, the film conforms to conjecture as it nears conclusion. Tonally, we spend a lot of time in the right place. There’s a significant plot issue though, one that tows the line between too obvious and too presumptuous and that never really finds a happy medium. It’s a notable flaw, but one that isn’t terminal thanks to Brit Marling’s glue-like principal performance and an ever bubbling cauldron of questions.

With anti-corruption and pro-repercussion faction The East dishing out their own brand of justice on corporations that they deem highly unethical, undercover agent Jane (Brit Marling) finds herself dawning disguise in order to infiltrate and impede. Now known as Sarah — she is working covertly after all — the intelligence officer finds herself almost immediately drawn to the cult’s in-house authentic methods, not to mention the diverse personnel on show; from curious leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), to the well-meaning Doc (Toby Kebbell). Questions arise baring inconclusive answers and a mist of uncertainty soon shrouds notions of right or wrong.

It’s clear that director Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling (they co-wrote the screenplay together) are both invested in spouting a nuanced rhetoric and raising contemporary queries here. And for around fifty minutes, the duo are fruitful in their efforts. From polished corporate desks to some gritty journeying inside a dark carriage, Sarah’s initial intrusion attempts land her amidst the unknown. She is unknown too; apart from determination and smarts, we don’t have much of inclination as to where the dial on her moral compass points. Far from east, presumably. There’s not an awful lot of dialogue in the opening act, further funding a disorienting sensation that often aligns itself with the cult-seeking occupation. This means plot exposition is at a premium which, for those well-versed in the surveillance-thriller genre, is flattering. Though, the average movie-goer mightn’t take too kindly towards the film’s preconceived expectation that its audience’s knowledge berth refutes narrative explanation.

Dilemmas spark early on, presenting a mind map of questions that spawn from one central musing: who are the real bad guys? In an age where recycling is embedded into the domestic environment, where we instantly charge multinational suits with having a financially-driven ethos and where our opinions clash murkily over Twitter hashtags, The East’s main inquest floats around a pool of ambiguity. For a while, this creates an uneasy atmosphere where trust is difficult to assert. We are inclined to vote for Sarah because she is the main persona, unorthodoxly charming, a do-gooder working for a company whose motto is to defend us. Yet it’s a private firm, Hiller Brood, the exact kind targeted by The East.

The East, a group of rebels whose incentives on the surface are valiant and contemporary, aimed at exposing corruption: Doc informs those who will listen about deceitful loopholes such as side-effects printed on drugs, the text we barely ever read, warnings that exist solely as a mechanism to deflect blame from manufacturer to consumer (“That’s how they rape you, in broad daylight”). But the cult’s methods are dubious and they carry the idiom of terrorism, a word we are programmed to vehemently oppose. Undoubtedly, Batmanglij and company are on to something; a modern hoodish thriller supported by an infusion of geopolitics and cult behaviour. Sarah’s experiences within the group consume most of the overly-long runtime and, unsurprisingly, the best interactions are those displayed during the film’s better early half. A family dinner is particularly creepy — leader Benji resembles Jesus with his scruffy beard and long brown hair as he sits at the head of the table, his disciples scattered around waiting to comply, candles flickering and fighting off darkness.

Despite a promising inception, The East eventually disposes of its affecting restraint and increasingly succumbs to a please-the-masses mindset. From beaming an off-kilter aura akin to that of Batmanglij’s previous outing Sound of My Voice, proceedings undergo an unnecessary tonal shift and begin to closer resemble the slick blueprints of something like 21. Instead of seeing odd rituals, we watch The East group cohesively strategise and execute plans that become progressively silly as goings-on advance. A polished and shrewd heist-like presentation often carries dangerous affection — we tend to revel in well-executed wrong-doing (think Ocean’s trilogy). This is certainly not the type of admiration that should be associated with secretive and brooding cults, yet it’s the kind seeking approval here. After establishing a plethora of ambiguous players, it’s almost as if the film is trying to make our mind up for us by attempting to manufacture likeability, even though The East aren’t a particularly amiable bunch.

Worse than that, searing plot-holes begin to undermine the cult’s mystic air: they don’t do any significant background checks on new members and allow people to leave base for extended periods of time, two missteps that do not align with the meticulous planning that goes on prior to delivering their threats. Very early on a member finds out that Sarah is not who she claims to be, yet said person places more trust in the threatening stranger than her pseudo-family. How the clan has survived without being unmasked, either publicly or at least to the authorities, is anyone’s guess. Answers evade me.

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the film is held together by an excellent central performance from Brit Marling. Unlike in Sound of My Voice, Marling portrays the afflicted rather the allusive and does so with some gusto (she practised freeganism before filming in order to gain a more realistic character perspective). The actor always transmits an enchanting scent and always seems at home when working with a degree or two of obscurity. Throughout, she must juggle two different personalities — the investigative agent and the cogent clique comrade — and manages to do so while evolving Sarah’s outlook rather than sacrificing her continuity. The narrative may jar, but Marling’s character definitely does not. Ellen Page plays Izzy, who is most affected by the plot’s occasionally far-fetched demeanour. Alexander Skarsgård is good as Benji, injecting an eerie charisma that, inevitably, cannot be sustained. Doc is the most genial cult member, and it is to Toby Kebbell’s credit that we don’t feel relentless sympathy for him — in spite of his predicament, Doc comes across as strong rather than weak.

Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling try in vein to recapture the ritualistic mystique that reverberated through their previous collaboration, Sound of My Voice. The duo get too caught up in plot endeavours though, birthing a disconcerting genre mishmash. Nonetheless, The East remains a solid outing thanks to Marling’s engaging performance and a handful of relevant societal reflections.

The East - Brit Marling

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures