Sunday, 5 June 2016

NEW RELEASES: Money Monster & Warcraft: The Beginning

Money Monster

(Director: Jodie Foster.  Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O'Connell)

Money Monster, the new movie by Jodie Foster is built around the titular fictional television show which purports to be a financial programme offering insights into the stock market but seems to mainly consist of George Clooney dancing around in silly costumes with a pair of showgirls and playing clips from old movies.  I'd suggest that this is a ridiculous satire but having watched what gets passed off a 'news' in the USA this show seems oddly plausible.  One such airing of this show is interrupted when a young delivery man (played by Jack O'Connell) storms onto the set armed with a gun and an explosive vest and demanding for the show to continue until he gets answers to why his recent investment failed.  Meanwhile the shows director (Julia Roberts) remains stranded in the studio gallery trying to maintain some control of the insane circus she is now being forced to direct.

Foster has some previous experience with stories involving a woman trying to
maintain control of a situation where a dangerous man is separated from her by glass.
Money Monster's greatest selling point is it's A-List cast.  George Clooney, in an echo of his Oscar nominated turn in Up In The Air plays a self-righteous corporate blowhard who is forced to question his whole outlook on life over the course of the film.  His ability to play smarmy arrogance is put to great use in the early sections of the film but his turn towards empathy and integrity by the end feels a little bit forced and unlikely.  Jack O'Connell (an actor who was so good in 2013's Starred Up that it helped me forgot that the awful 300: Rise of an Empire existed) brings a natural intensity to the role of the put-upon everyman on a desperate bid for retribution.  However the best performance in the film goes to Julia Roberts who, much like in her recent roles in August: Osage County and the Secret In Their Eyes remake, plays a strong woman powering through a troubled situation with quiet grit and determination (also like both those films, the performance feels like it deserves to be in a stronger movie overall.)

I'm not sure how her performance in Mother's Day ranks as I'd
rather set myself on fire than pay to see it.
Jodie Foster does a solid job of keeping the film moving at a steady pace.  There is enough tension and mystery to keep you entertained throughout and there is a surprising number of genuinely funny moments dotted throughout the runtime (an ill-advised attempt to get someone to talk O'Connell down is an unexpectedly harsh highlight.)  Where the film lacks bite however is in it's attempts at satire which, whether the target is the financial system or the media, has been done better before (Julia Robert's attempts to keep the televised hostage drama looking professional have a slight air of Sidney Lumet's 'Network' about them for one.)  The plot pivots around the idea that a major financial business could just lose $800m overnight and get away with blaming it on nothing more than a computer glitch without any further investigation by regulatory bodies or the media.  Even considering the ridiculous wheeler-dealing that major banks get away with, this seem rather ludicrous and makes it impossible to see the film as relevant to any real-life scenario.  Also a rather silly third act relies on Clooney's previously unscrupulous lead suddenly becoming protective of the man who has been threatening his life for the previous hour and puts finding him the answers he wants above his own safety.

Still despite this, Foster manages to keep the plot speeding forward throughout the film's well paced 90mins (not enough films these days keep the runtime down to such a sharp succinct level) and the there's enough tension and dark humour to keep things fun.

So ultimately the question is whether giving Money Monster your time would be a good investment?  Well that depends on your circumstances.  If you are already planning to go to the cinema and are looking for a film which will keep you entertained for 90mins then Money Monster is a solid low-risk choice.  However if you seek an intelligent and angry satire of the recent economic situation then you'd be better served by either the Oscar Nominated 'The Big Short' or the less known but subtly biting 'Margin Call.'  And if you seek a film that will give you a perfect mix of thrills, laughs, tragedy and dark satire of the way a violent confrontation can quickly turn into a media spectacle, well then the smart money would instead go on Sidney Lumet's 1975 classic 'Dog Day Afternoon.'

Warcraft: The Beginning

(Director: Duncan Jones.  Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper)

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien was first published in 1954 and sent shockwaves around the whole genre of fantasy writing inspiring thousands of books, comics, films and games to start filling their universes with Elves, Dwarves and Orcs.  In 1983, inspired by Tolkein's works, Games Workshop created the world of Warhammer for their tabletop games which pitted armies of these beings against each other.  In the 90s, the computer game company Blizzard attempted to buy the rights to Warhammer as a basis for a Real Time Strategy game.  This plan fell through but instead inspired the creative minds at Blizzard to come up with their own universe which reworked those influences into their own unique brand.  The first Warcraft game was released in 1994.  World of Warcraft, released in 2004, adapted the story of the strategy game into a large open-world MMORG becoming a global phenomenon which inspired a series of novels expanding the mythology of the game.  Now we have the new film which is directly based upon storylines taken from those novels.

This means that director Duncan Jones has been challenged to the unenviable task of adapting a film from a spin-off of an adaption of a knock-off of a tribute while still trying to inject it with enough original spirit to stand on it's own.  Not an easy task.

Warcraft begins in Draenor, the homeworld of the orcs, which is beginning to die off.  In order to survive the orcs band together under the leadership of a sinister shaman called Gul'dan to build a portal with which the orcs can use to escape to the more hospitable world of Azeroth.  Unfortunately the magic used to power the portal requires death to work so a small army of orcs make the first journey in order to find live victims to bring back to charge the portal so that the rest of the orc 'Horde' can join them in their new world.  Meanwhile the humans who rule over Azeroth prepare themselves to fight back this invasion.

As a citizen of Glasgow, I'm used to being overrun by a terrifying green Horde
To describe the plot further would be a bad idea as it involves multiple characters over many locations being drawn into this central conflict and it would take the entire length of this review to cover it all so I will jump straight to my feelings about the film.  Now there are two ways that this film can be approached.  Either it can be treated as nothing more than a multi-million dollar piece of fanservice for the 12 million people who have subscribed to play World of Warcraft online or it can be treated as a standalone film in it's own right unbeholden to any larger mythology.  As someone who has never played a single second of any of the Warcraft series, I will have to approach this review from the latter viewpoint.  Unfortunately this is where it begins to fall apart.

The sheer scale of the film's mythology (or 'lore' as I've been advised to call it) is both it's greatest strength and the burden which ultimately ruins it.  Apparently one of Duncan  Jones' major contributions to the script was the idea that the orcs would be treated as equal leads to the humans rather than simply as rote villains.  He was successful in this effort but maybe too successful as the lead orc characters end up being so much more interesting and engaging than the fairly generic and underwritten human protagonists that you spend all the human scenes wanting to get back to them.  

This guy looks like he'd be more at home getting stoned in an alley behind
 a video rental store in a 90s comedy than casting spells to save the world
There are so many characters and plot points to cover during the film's 123m runtime that none of them feel like they have been given the time required to properly serve them.  So we end up with a film which simultaneously feels both too long and too short.  When major characters are killed we feel nothing as we have not been given any reason to connect with them enough to feel the loss and the film moves onto the next set piece before we've had a chance to really see the effect these deaths have on the other characters.  Similarly, one big twist (involving a character being revealed to be possessed by evil) is both obviously predictable and very confusing as we are given no explanation how or when this happened or how much of their behaviour in the film was their real self and how much was the actions of the demonic spirit within them.  The film is also inconsistent tonally and can't seem to decide whether to embrace the campy fun ridiculous elements of the setting fully or whether to aim for the more self-serious and tragic vibe found in, say, the Lord of the Rings movies or Game of Thrones.  Instead we end up in an awkward middle ground which is too silly to take seriously but too dry give us the barnstorming cartoon adventure that it has the potential to be.  (It doesn't help that Ramin Djawdi's score is often very similar to his own 'Baratheon theme' from the far darker world of Game of Thrones)  It also doesn't help that many of the lead roles seem oddly miscast.  Glenn Close even appears for a cameo which is both even shorter and stranger (although less enjoyable) than her surprise appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy (a film which knew how to turn a ludicrous plot filled with bizarre characters into something very entertaining).  Oddly, both Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga from the TV adaption of Preacher appear in roles which do not require their natural charisma and which only succeed in reminding you how much more fun this film could be if it also featured a drunken Irish vampire.

In the end, the film succeeds in creating a fascinating world that is enjoyable to spend time in but lacking in a human connection to give it any emotional power.  Considering that Duncan Jones managed to make you laugh, cry and sweat in his debut movie 'Moon' (a film featuring only Sam Rockwell stuck in a room with a talking emoji played by Kevin Spacey) it's a shame to see him struggle to make the epic scale of the Warcraft universe as compelling.  Ultimately, watching Warcraft the movie is as personally engaging as watching someone else playing a game of World of Warcraft.  It can make for an intriguing watch but you can't help but feel that your time would be better spent just playing it yourself.  

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