Warcraft: The Beginning

Director: Duncan Jones (2016)

Feeling defeated after two hours of crushing cartoon violence, I beat a hasty retreat from this fantasy adventure.

Two worlds go to war in this combination of live action and state of the art animation.

Using motion capture technology, every sabre toothed hairy backed orc is lovingly rendered by photorealistic motion capture. They combat actors sporting lovingly detailed suits of armour.

It’s based on a hugely popular online video game and is set in a extraordinarily designed Tolkienesque world of humans, orcs, dwarves, elves and wizards.

But it’s a sadly underpowered drama of unfathomable mythology and unexplained geography.

Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) seems to be a distant visual relative though Warcraft lacks its charm and clear narrative.

Although there’s no A list cast names, Warcraft possesses a recognised brand, a healthy budget and an up and coming director with a passion for the project.

But after this humdrum opener, it’s tricky to see how it will power the intended franchise to continued success.

There’s little sense of the early promise of Jones directorial career which kicked off with the smart and intimate sci fi thriller Moon (2009). It is an intelligent and intimate chamber piece. His follow up Source Code (2011) was less strong and now Warcraft completes a downward trajectory from which I hope he will recover.

A self confessed super fan of the game, Jones creates a world of extraordinary visual depth. With the excited air of a wayward puppy he rushes about to include as much of it as possible.

This is to the detriment of the dramatic tone which mostly occurs within a narrow bandwith, hovering at the level of Saturday morning kids TV.

A major contributing factor in the magnificence of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings (2001-03) trilogy was having the good fortune to be based on the writings of an Oxford scholar and the canny casting of experienced Shakespearean actors to give his dialogue gravitas. An under reliance on computer imagery helped enormously to ground the fantastical elements.

There’s a noticeable lack of such rich cultural heritage here. This is a shame as buried deep down is a cracking old fashioned story of family, betrayal and star crossed lovers.

Daniel Wu glowers as Gul’dan, a powerful orc shaman whose world is dying. Human sacrifice powers his evil green magic which he uses to open a portal into the peaceful human kingdom of Azeroth.

He sends through his fearsome orc warriors to conquer it, crushing their enemies with a signature move of using huge hammers to slam them bloodlessly into the ground.

The orcs are awesome looking eight foot tall humanoids. Pneumatically muscled and sabre toothed, they dress in in the skulls and furs of defeated foes.

Defending their land against the horde are a collection of wizards and warriors. They’re led by a puzzled looking Dominic Cooper who plays King Llane.

I shared his confusion as the story whizzes from castle to battle to floating fortress in the sky.

Travis Fimmel’s knight and Paula Patton’s green skinned half orc captive are given the best of the scarce humour. The way these two characters are brought together and assume greater prominence is one of the film’s few strengths.

As orcs who question Gul’dan’s vicious regime, Toby Kebbell and Anna Galvin give the most effecting performances and share a personal chemistry notably lacking almost everywhere else.

On the eve of the final battle, the King gives us two words from Shakespeare’s Henry V Agincourt speech before rushing off for yet another fight. This suggests a lack of confidence in the attention span of the audience.

As everyone struggles with the functional dialogue, CGI armies slash, stab and slay. A lot of casualties are reduced to husks when their life force is sucked out of them.

It’s a risk unwary viewers will share.











Love And Friendship

Director: Walt Stillman (2016)

Like TV’s Downton Abbey but with wit and considerably better breeding, this adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan is an elegant waspish joy.

There’s corsets for the ladies and mutton chops for the chaps. With a full carriage of wealthy suitors, impoverished friends and watchful servants, it’s a sharp eyed trot though the drawing rooms of nineteenth century stately homes.

Kate Beckinsale is ravishing in scarlet as the penniless widow out to secure a good marriage for herself and her daughter. As young Frederica an impressive Morfydd Clark suffers her mother’s machinations with determined grace.

Tom Bennett is marvellously silly as the stupid, wealthy and available Sir James Martin. Chloe Sevigny, Jemma Redgrave and Stephen Fry are swept up with the gossip, intrigue and social commentary as it flits between London the crisp English countryside.

Under the comic assault of Austen’s withering writing, the cast contrive to keep a straight face with far more success than I managed to do.

Though the selfish, arrogant and manipulative Lady Susan is a collection of unattractive traits, we warm to her because she is alarmingly funny, decisive, intelligent and not to be denied her pleasure because society frowns upon her doing so.

It would be intriguing to read Austen’s thoughts on the gender divide in 2016, a year in which it’s possible to argue this year’s best role for a fortysomething actress was written by herself 200 years ago.



Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants

Director: Helene Giraud, Thomas Szabo (2016)

The hills are alive with the sound of ant music in this award winning animated adventure for the little ones.

On an Alpine meadow a lost young ladybird achieves heroic stature among a colony of black ants.

First she helps them transport a tin of sugar cubes to their nest and then comes up with a daring plan to defend it from an antagonistic army of red ants.

Cartoon battling bugs are combined with real outdoor locations in a sweet retro fashion.

The insects communicate with a series of appealing whistles and raspberries. With no dialogue it’s easy to follow the story.

This is a late release in the UK and timed to capitalise on the school half term holiday. In 2014 it was the winner of the Cesar Award for Best Animated Feature Film at the 40th Cesar Awards, beating out the fabulous Irish folk tale Song Of The Sea (a 2015 UK release).

Charming, comic and with a gentle eco message, this is an anthem to the virtues of kindness, bravery and friendship.




The Daughter

Director: Simon Stone (2016)

This gloomy family drama is a sombre reflection on class, wealth, infidelity and betrayal.

A respectful adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck (pub. 1884 as Vildanden) it successfully migrates from 19th century Norway to modern day Australia.

A languid pace and sumptuous cinematography encourages us to wallow in the brooding atmosphere. Varied locations from stately home to derelict mill suggest the texture of history.

They anchor the poised performances from a top drawer cast which includes veteran Aussie actors Geoffrey Rush and Sam Neill. They play estranged former business partners Henry and Walter.

With an endearing and frank freshness, pink haired teenager Odessa Young plays Hedwig. She’s Walter’s grand-daughter and the daughter of the title. Bright and sensitive, she’s pursuing a romance with a school friend.

As Henry prepares to marry his young housekeeper Anna, his confrontational and alcoholic son Christian has returned from abroad.

Although never dull, we spend a long time waiting for a dark secret to power the violent finale where lives are shredded.



Alice Through The Looking Glass

Director: James Bobin (2016)

It’s six long years since the staggeringly successful but forgettable Alice In Wonderland (2010) from director Tim Burton.

And time drags in this muddled sequel which has even less connection to the fantastical novels of Lewis Carroll.

There’s no lyrical sense of wonder just hack handed sentiment, blunt slapstick and plodding special effects.

It jettisons familiar characters into two distinct and parallel plots of its own invention, respectively involving time travel and female empowerment. The resolution of family conflict joins the two strands loosely together.

Never forget Hollywood’s golden rule of scriptwriting; a film is always about family, regardless of how appropriate it is to the material.

Burton butchered Carroll’s whimsical masterpiece, replacing its playful intelligence, charm and wit with flamboyant gothic design and an excruciating mannered performance by Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

Against the odds, Burton’s replacement James Bobin has made an even more unwieldy and incoherent film.

Previously Bobin directed The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014). He began in TV with The 11 O’Clock Show (1998) where he collaborated with Sacha Baron Cohen. The comic actor features heavily if sadly not hilariously in Looking Glass.

Despite Alice being reinvented as an action heroine, the pale Mia Wasikowska gives a pallid performance as Alice. Perhaps she’s miffed she’s billed a humble third after Depp and Anne Hathaway.

Alice steps through a mirror and falls into Wonderland, immediately signalling to us nothing in this world can hurt her. Which destroys any potential sense of danger in one dull thud.

She is told her friend the Mad Hatter has gone more mad but in a bad way, and is dying.

In white face paint, orange wig and tweeds, Depp’s Hatter resembles Ronald McDonald’s eccentric great uncle after confinement to a suitable attic.

To cure him Alice must do the impossible task of stealing a device called the chronosphere and go back in time to rescue his long lost family.

Removing the time travelling machine risks destroying Wonderland and everyone in it. But this threat is quickly forgotten about as the film is more interested in whizzing Alice about. There’s a surprise incursion to an insane asylum.

Alice is chased by Time who wants his contraption back. The film can’t decide if the black clad and German accented Sacha Baron Cohen is the baddie.

Also vying to be the baddie but failing in villainy are Helena Bonham Carter and Hathaway. They make a squabbling return as respectively the large headed and rude Red Queen and the elegant and duplicitous White Queen.

The presence of Bonham Carter, his now ex-wife, may explain Burton’s exclusion from the director’s chair.

The sepulchral tones of the late Alan Rickman offers a fleeting moment of gravity. While in her brief appearances as Alice’s mother, theatrical Scots stalwart Lindsay Duncan makes more of an impression than Wasikowska achieves.

Lending their voices to the advertising poster in some un-necessarily expensive casting choices are Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, John Sessions, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse and Toby Jones.

Usually my heart despairs whenever Matt Lucas appears so it says a great deal about the film I found his presence curiously bearable.

Alice won Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, as well as being nominated for Best Visual Effects.

No doubt Looking Glass will follow the first film in being in the running for similar awards. It’s rich and detailed production design gives us plenty to look at while everyone busily runs around.

The chronosphere is a golden mechanical marvel Alice sits in to blast back in time, a design nod to George Pal’s teen culture embracing adaption of HG Well’s The Time Machine (1960).

Alice visits vast gothic halls and traverses a tumultuous ocean of time. The world is populated by  mechanical assistants, vegetable guardsmen, giant chess pieces, a fire breathing Jabberwocky, walking frogs, talking dogs and of course the disappearing Cheshire Cat.

Bookending the film is a framing device featuring Alice’s adventures at sea pursued by pirates. Because the world needs another big budget CGI fest involving Johnny Depp and pirates.

The story stresses the importance of not wasting ones time. Which is strange as I wasted two hours of my life watching this joyless merry go round of a movie.

Mind you, it felt much longer.






The Call Up

Director: Charles Barker (2016)

I was tempted to go MIA while watching this misfiring sci fi action thriller.

Virtual reality gamers feeling the real pain of warfare is a strong premise. But the potential is carelessly squandered by the lack of polish in the script. This translates into a deficit of onscreen urgency, tension or humour.

Eight expert online gamers are invited to the top floor of a tower block.

Identified to each other only by their avartars, they’re squeezed into full immersion technology suits; an unforgiving combo of nylon jump suits and white armour.

Believing they’re playing a hi-tech version of paintball, they’re instructed to fight their way past ‘terrorists’ to the ground floor.

This is a similar scenario to the comic book adaptation Dredd (2012) and Indonesian martial arts movie The Raid: Redemption (2012). It worked brilliantly there but not so much here.

A strangely muted pace and the workaday action lacks the gleeful sadism of recent low similar budget flicks such as The Purge (2013).

The player with highest points will win £100,000 prize money. However the team quickly discover being shot involves pain, injury and even death. This is definitely not what they  signed up for.

Sadly the twist ending isn’t worth waiting for. Plus the characters are so thinly sketched we don’t care.

Morfydd Clark and Ali Cook are among the hard working actors struggling to inject life into a sterile environment.

There’s some sweet design in the costumes and technology but even assuming for the budget constraints, the location dressing is uninspired.

What should compensate is scorching action, great dialogue, the sense of a wider world, a critique of game playing or perhaps an examination of the correlation between on and off screen violence. And all of this is missing.

By setting itself low ambitions and barely achieving them, experiencing The Call Up was far too much a call of duty.



Director: Joe Stephenson (2016)

Intense performances, an assured tone and a textured landscape shot with an appreciative eye are the strengths of this earnest and occasionally raw drama.

But as the characters struggle with poverty and abandonment, the script fails to free itself of the burden of its theatrical roots, failing to ignite the painstakingly constructed emotional bonfire.

Morgan Watkins and Scott Chambers play brothers with learning difficulties who live in a derelict caravan on farmland.

Polly is older, aggressive and more capable than Richard, he earns beer money as a casual labourer.

During Polly’s daily absence, the sweet natured Richard strikes up an unlikely friendship with spoilt middle class teenager Annabelle, played brightly by Yasmin Paige.

The deterioration of the boys challenging circumstances accelerates the decline of their relationship, unearthing a life changing family secret.