Warcraft: The Beginning (2016) – Review

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It’s hard to find a video-game-to-movie adaptation that truly stands on its own as a great film. I’ll always argue that Silent Hill is an excellent horror movie no matter what anyone else says provided we don’t speak about the sequel, Revelation, but it seems that this is my personal exception to the rule and was by no means unanimously successful among movie-goers as well as fans of the games. The hierarchy of video game adaptations goes down and down from here, through the campy but occasionally enjoyable Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat, and Tomb Raider franchises, landing at the bottom of the deep, dark pit where the downright offensive and grotesque adaptation of Super Mario Bros. lies. 2016 threatens to break the curse of the video game adaptation (a phrase that countless movies have proudly declared in the past before running away with their tails between their legs) with the releases of the hugely anticipated Assassin’s Creed movie and before that, this one; an adaptation of the ridiculously popular, ridiculously huge MMORPG video game World of Warcraft. Does it truly “break the curse” as many others have tried and failed, or does it land in the pile of at-best-near-misses with every other adaptation to precede it?

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Warcraft is rarely subtle

Warcraft is high fantasy, there is no way of avoiding that. The story follows various orc clans that have been united into a single Horde by the Shaman Gul’dan in order to travel through a magical portal powered by the life force of living creatures to the human realm of Azeroth because their realm, Draenor, is polluted and dead. Naturally the king of Azeroth is not too chuffed when the Orcs start raiding villages across the realm, and so sets out to stop them, assisted by the Guardian Mage, Medivh. The film doesn’t even take a modern Game of Thrones-style approach where it is a very human drama set in a fantasy world; director Duncan Jones dives headfirst into the fantasy, forcing us to accept that magic and monsters are very real and ever-present in this world. This works to the film’s advantage, because it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to dumb down the fantasy elements from the games to appease cynical audiences, and certainly doesn’t seem to be copying the style of other successful fantasy franchises from recent years.While Lord of the Rings certainly didn’t shy away from fantastic elements this movie is much more gleeful and action-packed. With a bright visual style that allows anything magical to glow neon colours and larger-than-life monsters to scatter humans like ragdolls in battle scenes that certainly don’t hold back on the violence yet still somehow manage to get the family friendly certifications, this really feels like what filmmakers of the 80’s would have created had they access to the visual effects of today.

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Power Rangers wished it looked this cool

These visual effects are what would always make or break this film. Many wished for an entirely CG movie of Warcraft, but after the lukewarm figures for Beowulf, Christmas Carol, and the most recent disaster of Mars Needs Moms I imagine producers are very wary of “realistic CGI”, motion captured films for some time. This left fans worrying about whether the makers could successfully sell live-action humans interacting with unearthly CGI creatures without it looking like a poor mime act, and for these creatures to display enough emotion to allow them to become main characters rather than plasticy dead-eyed mannequins (I refer you to every scene with Azog in The Hobbit trilogy for an example of both of these tasks going terribly wrong…) The first scene featuring our hero Orc, Durotan, puts all these worries to rest. A static, silent close-up shot of his face as he sits over his pregnant wife, tears are subtly brimming in his eyes. It’s astounding how touching this entirely computerized little moment is; Durotan’s face and eyes hold so much emotion and life. The effects never drop below this quality in fact. Whether by controlled firelight as in this scene or in broad daylight (always the true test for CG characters) the Orcs and other creatures really do seem to exist alongside and interact with the human actors. I’ve always championed practical effects in fantasy but have to begrudgingly admit that this movie chose correctly to do everything with CGI.

“I look good”

Where the effects are the strongest point of the movies its weakest point isn’t necessarily the plot itself, but in how the plot is put across. Many sources have quoted Duncan Jones on his original cut being a whole 40 minutes longer, and the cuts really do show. This film has an entirely new universe to establish, a rather dense plot with multiple lead characters to build up, and a number of epic battle scenes; all a lot to do in barely 120 minutes. All these things are managed, but only just so. Many scenes are reduced to simple, colour-by-numbers exposition. We sometimes even don’t get an establishing shot, and more often than not we have no room to breathe and explore this beautifully realised world, we just get a brief scene where characters explain what they feel or plan to do or so on, and we instantly cut straight to the next scene. It makes seemingly interesting and charismatic characters struggle to really capture our feelings, and causes confusion to uninformed viewers. It’s interesting that those I watched the film with didn’t feel things were so rushed and confusing when they are World of Warcraft veterans whereas I haven’t spent a single minute on the game (I play Hearthstone, a card game based on some WoW characters but I had no idea of their backstories or the world in general). It’s clear that those who already understand this world don’t need a guiding hand, but many other people, myself included, need this fundamental understanding to be taught to us. Even for established fans, it would be nice to see a wider world realised on screen. Brief glimpses of the detail that the film could have gone into, such as a Murloc visible in a stream, and a certain comical spell being used on a guard are small tastes of what could have been. Let’s just hope we one day see a Lord of the Rings-esque Extended Cut. It is either a cynical cash-grabbing move where the home video extended cut is inevitable, or it is a nervous studio hacking away in the belief that audiences can’t handle long runtimes despite every superhero movie of late seeming to last seven hours by which time the next sequel has already been released.

The editor, ready to do his work on Warcraft

All considered, the best way I can summarise my opinion of Warcraft is that it is a brilliant high-fantasy movie that has been unnecessarily cut down to its bones. Incredible visuals, brilliantly choreographed battle scenes, lovable leads (both live action and CG) all work together in an engrossing and entertaining plot that just runs by too quickly. I feel like Duncan Jones may have actually come closer to breaking the Video Game Adaptation Curse than any other has, but the curse came back to get him at the final editing hurdle, resulting in a movie that should prove very successful among established fans of the franchise, but risks alienating or confusing newcomers who don’t pay enough attention to take in new information in every minute of the runtime. PLEASE give us the original cut, Legendary! And if not, at least let the already-announced sequels spend a bit more time in the world.

7/10

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Pet Shop of Horrors (1999) – Anime Review

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A four part anime mini-series based on the collection of manga books, Pet Shop of Horrors stars the mysterious, androgynous Count D who runs an equally mysterious pet shop in the heart of L.A.’s Chinatown. It goes without saying that the Count doesn’t really deal in hamsters and goldfish; every creature sold in the store comes with a strict contract and quite often a rather dark secret, introducing Leon, a detective investigating a series of unusual deaths – all of whom seem to have at one point visited this pet shop in Chinatown . Each episode focuses on a different customer of the store, looking at the events leading to them entering the shop and the consequences their pets bring upon them.

Excuse me Sir, you have a “What the fuck is that?” on your shoulder

The individual stories are really interesting – cherry picked from the manga (which I have not read) they are each quite unique but always very dark, looking at deep issues in the featured characters. The imagery the creatures provide to the stories varies from unsettling to beautiful, and occasionally both at once. This, coupled with the neo-gothic design and a dreamlike haze added to many of the scenes makes this a visually powerful series. Sound design is less impressive – the 90’s drum n’ bass soundtrack attempts to be brooding and mysterious but ultimately, no matter how they may have tried to do something unusual the high-tempo drums don’t lend well to the twisted, suspenseful scenes. Plus on a personal level I found it bloody irritating.

Come on now, the music isn’t THAT bad.

The major downfall of the series however, is the overbearing storyline, or lack thereof; for the first few episodes the interaction between Count D & Leon is set up to be quite gripping; the makings of a cat & mouse battle of wits are planted; and it’s clear that there’s much more to learn about The Count himself. It has a slow burn feel to it, so that it’s only really by episode 3 perhaps that I started to get to know the recurring characters and everything points towards it lasting more like 12 episodes. But by the end of the fourth & final episode the loose ends aren’t even slightly tied up. If anything, the final revelation of this episode makes it even more frustrating to see the series end, as the wider implications would make a great story. I don’t know if a lack of budget forced this to be so short, but it feels more like a feature-length trailer for the manga than a standalone anime in its own right which is a great shame. If viewed purely as an anthology for the individual stories and the grotesque & wonderful images they supply however, it’s definitely worth a look. Just don’t expect the main storyline to go anywhere.

5/10