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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Warcraft

May 24th, 2017
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I have no attachment to or even any knowledge of the game Warcraft.  I have never played the game, in any of its incarnations.  But I was interested in the film version because of the involvement of Duncan Jones at the helm.  Mr. Jones directed Moon, a fantastic tiny-budget sci-fi film from 2009 starring Sam Rockwell.  That film made me a forever fan of Mr. Jones, and I was curious to see how he’d interpret the massive game canvas of Warcraft.

Warcraft.cropped

The film tells the origin of a conflict between humans and Orcs on the fantasy world of Azeroth.  As the film opens, we follow Orc clan-leader Durotan and his pregnant mate Draka as they, and other Orc warriors, flee their dying world.  Their powerful leader Gul’dan uses his magic to transport the Orc horde from their dying world to the lush Azeroth.  There they face that world’s protectors, including King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), Protector Medivh (Ben Foster), the warrior Lothar (Travis Fimmel), and the young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer).  But not all Orcs are evil and not all humans have Azeroth’s best interests at heart.

This is a tough film to unpack. I love the enormous ambition on display in every frame.  This film wants to be a spectacular fantasy epic.  It is stuffed full of characters and places and creatures, all of whom have complicated names and back-stories.  The look of the film is full-on fantasy epic, with elaborate costumes and props and sets and settings, many of which are enhanced by extensive CGI effects.  There are enormous vistas and expansive CGI fantasy cities and locations.  There are incredible creatures and and lots of magical super-powers.

It’s all, as I just commented, incredibly impressive in the scope of its ambition.  Unfortunately, I can’t say that the film works at all.  I don’t have any pre-existing knowledge of Warcraft, the characters or backstory.  I am someone who loves sci-fi and fantasy, and my eyes don’t glaze over when it comes to crazy names and fantasy settings.  But this movie overwhelmed me.  It was all “too much of a muchness” (to quite the great Ira Steven Behr, one of the main writers behind the best seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).  There were just too many characters, too many locations, too many hard-to-say and harder-to-remember long, very fantasy-sounding names.  Far too much was thrown at the audience far too fast, without giving us strong enough characters to be able to hold onto and invest in.

This film’s problems emphasize for me the successful way Peter Jackson launched his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  That film is an enormous fantasy canvas, stuffed full … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Source Code

The phenomenally high-quality Moon (starring Sam Rockwell — read my review here) guaranteed that I’d buy a ticket for director Duncan Jones’ next film.  Well, that film has arrived, and although it took me several weeks to find the time to get catch it in a theatre, I’ve finally seen Source Code.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Captain Colter Stevens.  He wakes up on a train heading towards Chicago, but doesn’t have any idea how he got there.  His last memory is flying a mission in Afghanistan.  Across the seat from him is a woman, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who seems to know him, but he has no idea who she is.  Also, she calls him Sean.  After a few frantic minutes trying to figure out what’s happening to him, the train explodes, killing Captain Stevens, Christina, and everyone on board.

But Captain Stevens doesn’t die.  He wakes up in some sort of pod.  A woman on-screen in a military uniform identifies herself as Goodwin and begins to lay out some of the details of Captain Stevens’ situation.  A terrorist detonated a bomb on that train and has threatened to decimate Chicago by detonating another bomb, this one with nuclear material.  A technology known as Source Code will allow Captain Stevens to relive the last eight minutes of life of one of the passengers on the doomed train.  He has that long to try to identify the bomber and prevent the threatened destruction of Chicago.  They’re going to continue sending him back into that eight minutes until he does.

Let me get this right off the bat: Source Code is no Moon. It’s an entertaining sci-fi thriller, and it certainly has some fun mind-bending concepts, but it’s nowhere near as memorable as the incredibly original, tightly-structured Moon.

Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan do fine work as the two leads.  They’re both talented and charismatic enough that they capture our interest even though we don’t really get to learn much about either character.  The focus of the film is far more on the intricate sci-fi plotting than it is on developing characters.  That’s not a criticism — I love twisty plot-driven films.  But when comparing this film to, say Speed (which is certainly not great cinema but is a rousing action adventure that also focuses on a man and a woman trapped in an enclosed moving vehicle in a tense situation), it’s clear that we certainly get to know Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock’s characters far better than we do those of Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Monaghan.  I adored Ms. Monaghan’s work in the magnificent Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and the also-terrific Gone Baby Gone, and I’ve been waiting … [continued]

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2009 Catch-Up: Josh Reviews Moon

Though 2009 is well in the past, I’m still trying to find time to watch those 2009 films that I missed (some of which I listed when writing my Best Films of 2009 list).  At the top of my I-really-wanted-to-see-it-but-never-did list from 2009 was Duncan Jones’ little sci-fi film, Moon.

When I say “little,” I am referring only to the budget (5 million dollars).  Because in no other way is Moon a “little” film.  No, Moon is a phenomenal achievement, and it surely would have made my Best Films of the Year list had I seen it in time.

It’s the near future, and the great Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Frost/Nixon) plays Sam Bell, working alone in a small helium-3 mining station on the moon.  His only companion is the station’s computer, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey, perfectly cast).  Sam is nearing the end of his three-year contract and is anticipating his return to Earth and to his family.  Of course, it’s not going to be that simple.

I’ve barely said anything about the film’s story, but I really think that’s for the best.  This is a film best appreciated going in cold, without knowing any of the plot twists.  Suffice it to say, when a distracted Sam crashes one of the station’s small rovers, he unwittingly sets into motion a chain of events that leads to things quickly going more and more awry in his once-efficient little moon station.

Moon is an acting tour-de-force for Sam Rockwell.  With the exception of a few other people glimpsed briefly on computer monitors, Sam is the only character on screen for the entire film.  But he dominates the screen so thoroughly that I didn’t even really consider that fact until well after the film had ended.  Mr. Rockwell has always been known for bringing a particularly idiosyncratic brand of humanity to the flawed array of characters he has portrayed on screen, and his Sam Bell in this film is a spectacular example.  Once the plot gets going, Sam’s ordered life starts to fall down around his ears, and the way Mr. Rockwell brings to life his increasing desperation, and also his surprising inner reservoirs of strength, is wonderful.  Shame on the Academy for not nominating this spectacular acting performance!!

Writer/director Duncan Jones jokes in the DVD’s special features that the most recent example of an “indie” sci-fi movie that he can think of is Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which was made for around 50 million dollars. Moon was made for 5 million.  To say that my jaw was on the floor when I learned that this movie was made for such a miniscule … [continued]