Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Movie Review: Warcraft (2016)

When I was in middle school, my friend David and I greatly enjoyed playing the fantasy war game Warcraft. Although I never got the sequel Warcraft 2 myself, the day I went off to college I bought Warcraft III and that Christmas I got the Frozen Throne expansion pack. The latter games in particular I felt had better storylines than many movies and I would have liked to see it on the big screen.

Well, to have a Warcraft III movie you have to have a Warcraft movie, and that’s what we got with this film. Was it everything a lifelong Warcraft fan could want? Let’s see…

The Plot

The world of Azeroth has been at peace for a long time, but that peace is shattered when the Orc Horde under the command of the sorcerer Gul'dan (Daniel Wu) invades, seeking a new homeland now that their world has been poisoned by evil fel magic. Human warrior Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), whose sister Taria (Ruth Negga) is married to King Llane of Stormwind, faces the invasion head-on. Fighting alongside him are the half-trained mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), his son Collan (Burkely Duffield), and the POW-turned ally Garona (Paula Patton), who is half-Orc and half-human. Advising Llane is the sorcerer Medivh (Ben Foster), who may be more than he seems, while the Orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his friend Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky) grow more skeptical of Guldan’s destructive ways…

The Good

*The movie is a faithful adaptation of the games in terms of plot, locations, etc.  Although the first game was much lighter in storyline than the later installments, there’s enough here to have a functioning movie.

*Like the second game and the later installments, the story averts the trope of Fantasy Gun Control. In fact, they do it really awesomely in one key scene.

*Like Warcraft III, the movie does a great job humanizing the Orcs. They’re depicted as fierce warriors with a strong honor culture instead of a horde of homicidal savage demon-worshipers. This represents an improvement over the first game, which in addition to the homicidal demon-worshiping bit also depicts the Orcs as generally being idiots. It goes so far as to attribute Garona’s intelligence to her mixed Orc and human lineage. This improved depiction of the Orcs ties nicely in with the third game.

*We meet the future Orc war-chief Thrall as a baby, a nice tie-in with the third game.

*Other than some draggy bits toward the middle, the movie is rarely boring. It’s quite entertaining, which is why we see movies after all. J

*There are a lot of fun little nods to the game, including the Polymorph spell one can use to transform dangerous enemies into helpless sheep, the Orcish phrase “zug-zug,” and how a golem animated by fel magic bears a strong resemblance to the Infernals used by the demonic Burning Legion in Warcraft III. My old stalwart TVTropes has a whole bunch listed under Mythology Gag.

*Of particular note is the half-Orc Garona. The movie plays her as torn between two worlds, disdained by her own kind but yet strongly devoted to the honor and martial traditions the Orcs practiced before Gul'dan rose to power. Half-Orcs are often depicted as the product of rape of human women by savage Orcs, but the film hints at a more complicated back-story connected to Medivh. Her role in the climax of the film ties in with the game, but at the same time is very different, in a very clever way.

*Although the Orc chieftain Blackhand is underused in the film (I’ll explain more later), there is a really cool explanation for his name.

*There’s an explanation for why some Orcs are green and others aren’t.

The Bad

*A character is revealed to be a traitor, but their motivation is never really explained. One could hand-wave this by saying that he’d discovered fel magic and it had warped him, but some more details would have been nice.

*Although the movie is generally a good mix of CGI and normal actors, the dwarves look very video-game-like. Snow White and the Huntsman, Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit did a good job depicting dwarves—I don’t see why this movie, with a comparable budget and less well-known actors to pay, couldn’t have done the same.

*We see elves in one scene, but they don’t do anything. You can tell they're elves from their ears, but they aren't even described as elves.

*Garona’s relationship with Gul'dan could be elaborated on a bit more. She seems to be his Morality Pet to an extent—he apparently saved her life when her mother was executed and even gave her one of her mother's tusks to remember her by, but at the same time he drags her around on a chain and treats her rather shabbily until she proves her worth to the Orcs.

*The first game depicts Garona as an intellectual (she’s the one narrating the story of the Orcs in the instruction manual), but the movie depicts her as this Klingon-like noble savage who at first speaks English very poorly. Some hints of her scholarly potential could have been included—perhaps she could have been Gul'dan's apprentice and he mistreated her with the idea it’d motivate her to grow more powerful and someday challenge him? Think Star Wars and the Sith.

*Orgrim Doomhammer engages in some behavior that should provoke Gul'dan’s wrath, but the sorcerer stays his hand. It’s never explained why.

*Blackhand, the Orc chief who led the initial invasion of Azeroth, is underused in the film. They could have elaborated on his character a lot more.

*The movie does drag in a few places, especially toward the middle. It’s not an overpowering problem, but still.

*We see a lot of Llane and his wife, but their children are never mentioned and not even seen until Llane rides out for the final battle. It wouldn’t be that difficult to see them earlier—perhaps Llane’s son Varian greatly admires his older cousin Collan and we see them sparring or something?

*During the final human assault on the Orc bridgehead, either Stormwind warriors lose their discipline or their tactical training always sucked. They seem to forget how to form a shield-wall and swarm against the Orcs, whose tactics are generally not much better, even though we see some soldiers forming a testudo formation to deal with an Orc cavalryman in one scene.

The Verdict

A fun movie, but not worth the $13.70 I paid to see it in the evening. Save it for a matinee. 8.0 out of 10.

Hopefully the next one — and consideringhow much the movie has grossed overseas, I’m pretty sure there will be a nextone — will have all of this one’s strengths but none of its weaknesses.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Movie Review: X-Men Apocalypse (2016)

Last night I saw X-Men Apocalypse with my Myopia Defend Your Childhood crew, the same night the podcast on the 2000 film premiered.

The Plot

In 3600 BC, the mutant En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) is undergoing a transfer of consciousness from one body to another. Unfortunately for him, there's a rebellion against the "false god" and he ends up entombed underneath a pyramid. Flash forward to the 1980s and he's awoken by a bunch of cultists and begins planning to take over the world. Instrumental to his plans are a new set of Four Horsemen, including one Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender). Opposing him are the earliest X-Men, led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and including his associate Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), wild card mutant freedom fighter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), young telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who can shoot energy beams from his eyes.

The Good

*Owing to the time-travel plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past, this movie serves as a bridge linking the films set in the 1960s and 1970s to the present day. There's a lot of foreshadowing the events of the first X-Men film for Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and the third film for Jean Grey.

*Speaking of Jean, the insecurities she suffers in the first film are clear here as well, even though the movie takes place 20-odd years earlier.

*We meet Magneto's doomed wife and daughter and see the vengeance he unleashes for their deaths. It's a bit more subdued than the scene from the comics I remember--he turns the guns of the soldiers sent after him on their owners and we see see silhouettes of men shooting themselves in the head--but it works. Points for the Polish police in this film being clever--they come after Magneto with bows and arrows and aren't wearing their badges because there's metal in them.

*And speaking of Magneto's family, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) has two really awesome scenes and a couple of really funny lines.

*The movie is set in the 1980s (I'm guessing the spring or summer of 1983, considering that Return of the Jedi is in theaters and the viral TV ad explicitly says "1983") and they capture much of the feel of the period, including the clothes, the media people consume, etc. This is pretty nice, although the fact they tried to make it historically accurate in that area makes the historical inaccuracies I'll get to a lot more damning.

*For those of feminist inclinations, there's a conversation between Mystique and the young Jean Grey about the 1960s X-Men of X-Men: First Class that probably passes the Bechdel test. Also, given how Mystique is probably around Xavier's age and Jean Grey would have been in her teens, it's a bit of intergenerational female bonding. :)

*We meet Colonel Stryker (Josh Helman) and we see him at a midpoint in his character evolution. He's still quite willing to exploit mutants for military purposes like in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Days of Future Past, but his behavior toward the youngest of Xavier's students shows he hasn't turned into the monster of the second film who refers to a child mutant as a "creature" and schemes to kill all mutants everywhere.

*There's a really funny dig at X-Men: The Last Stand and possibly a bit of self-referential mockery of this movie when the teenage X-Men go see Return of the Jedi at the local mall.

*The movie introduces Nightcrawler, who is a lot younger than his character in the second film but still has the fast-talking tendencies and strong religious faith. I liked that.

The Bad

*Where to begin? For starters, about a quarter of the movie could have been cut if they eliminated the Stryker/Weapon X subplot that's solely an excuse to include Wolverine. Much of the movie is dull, and considering how fast-paced and entertaining I found the first one, that's actually kind of sad.

*Other than Magneto, the Four Horsemen aren't really that developed. Angel and Psylocke are particularly weak in that department. Storm is a bit better, but not as good as Magneto.

*Xavier at one point is depicted as being able to contact everyone one Earth telepathically. That contradicts the first movie and the second movie too, both of which show him needing Cerebro to amplify his powers to that extent. If Xavier was naturally that powerful, the whole "evil Cerebro" plot of the second film wouldn't need to happen at all. Not only is he overpowered in one scene, he's also underpowered at a critical point--he somehow loses the ability to take control of enemies lacking mental shields like Magneto's, which he demonstrated in the first film. That could have come in really handy in that one scene.

*Speaking of being overpowered, the fact depicts Magneto being able to cause magnetic events on the other side of the planet. Even with...some assistance...that's ridiculous.

*They bring in Jubilee, but do very little with her. It wouldn't have been that difficult to have her join the adventure along with Cyclops, Jean, and the newly-introduced Nightcrawler that I won't go into for reasons of spoilers (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

*There's a scene where Apocalypse uses Xavier's telepathy to go after the world's nuclear arsenals. That would explain why this "god" doesn't get wiped from the planet immediately upon revealing himself, but given how many weapons are in storage or aboard aircraft (which he completely overlooked), that issue would be remedied in hours if not minutes. He'd still get nuked.

*Apocalypse claims to be the inspiration of behind Elohim (Judaism), Krishna (Hinduism), Ra (the Egyptian religion), and many other faiths. However, he's depicted as being trapped under a collapsed pyramid in 3600 BC. This Jewish site states that Moses lived 1393-1273 BC, while this site states Abraham would have been born in 1800 BC. He's much too early to be the "historical God of Abraham." And this site here depicts the earliest Vedic (proto-Hindu) faiths to be in the second millennium BC. Apocalypse can't be Krishna either. Moira McTaggart theorizes Apocalypse could have inspired the Four Horsemen of Revelation, but that could be her own ignorance talking--Revelation was written in the late 1st Century AD.

*Apocalypse in ancient Egypt is depicted as having all this super-tech, which in the comics is explained but in the movie it's not. That's a problem.

*The teen pickpocket Storm is threatened with having her hand cut off by Egyptian shopkeepers. Yes, losing one's hand is/was a common punishment for theft in the Islamic world, but this is Egypt in the 1980s. It was ruled by an aggressively secularist military regime that I doubt would tolerate that. This page here even cites the Egyptian penal code to show that this would not have been the case. Stereotyping much?

The Verdict

A bunch of missed opportunities, too much New Powers as the Plot Demands, and far too long. 5.0 out of 10. I'm seriously tempted to write a "how I would have done it" page.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Blast From The Past Movie Review: X-Men (2000)

The other night for Myopia: Defend Your Childhood, we watched the 2000 film X-Men, which re-ignited public desire for comic-book films after Batman and Robin temporarily killed the genre. I owned a VHS copy of the movie when I was in high school, so this was definitely something I wanted to participate in. Here's the podcast. And onto the review...

The Plot

In "the near future," U.S. Senator Robert Kelly (depicted as a Kansas Republican, which is no surprise given Hollywood politics) wants to register the growing numbers of mutants, citing how potentially dangerous they could be. This does not sit well with Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellan), a Holocaust survivor whose "mutant power" is controlling metal. His old friend Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who runs a school for young mutants to teach them to use their powers responsibly, must stop him from using a young mutant Rogue (Anna Paquin) in a terrorist plot with the help of mysterious loner Logan (Hugh Jackman), whose cage-fighting name is Wolverine...

The Good

*The movie does a good job depicting the villains sympathetically. The film opens with the young Magneto separated from his family in a concentration camp, with the implication he's being kept alive for forced labor while his parents are sent to the gas chambers. Given his history, it would be very difficult for him to not view the proposed Mutant Registration Act as another set of Nuremberg Laws. Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), in a conversation with Senator Kelly, tells him it was men like him that made her afraid to go to school as a child. If her shape-shifting abilities didn't kick in until she was older and she was born with blue skin and those yellow demon-eyes, well, that's not really a surprise. :(

*I watched Hellboy earlier that afternoon for another podcast and X-Men's quick pace and near-complete lack of "let's check the time" moments was a great contrast. The movie is rarely if ever boring and moves along at a nice clip.

*The film's got a holy trinity of Jackman, Stewart, and McKellan in terms of good actors. Paquin, despite being born in Canada and growing up in New Zealand, does a good job playing the Mississippi-born Rogue. Paquin plays Louisiana's Sookie Stackhouse in the True Blood series, so it seems she was always able to do a good job playing Southern women.

*There's a fair amount of character growth in the film. Wolverine grows out of being a loner "living from day to day" and sustaining himself by cage-fighting, while some incidents that happen at the end of the film show that the X-Men, though they'd never become terrorists or hate normal people, might be a bit more tolerant of Magneto's militancy than they were before. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) learns to overcome her self-doubt about her abilities when an injury to Xavier forces her to use the telepathy-amplifying Cerebro. Even Senator Kelly, although he doesn't do the "mutants are human beings" Heel-Face Turn of the animated series I watched as a child, does show signs of overcoming his prejudice.

*Magneto calls his organization "The Brotherhood of Mutants," in contrast to the original comic's "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants." Nobody ever thinks they're evil--in his mind he's trying to protect mutants from another Holocaust by any and all means, and his plan in the film isn't especially evil by the standards of comic-book villain schemes. No details though--that would be spoilers.

*Wolverine's past is shown, not just told, when he wakes up in a strange medical facility and immediately lashes out at the first person he encounters. He doesn't just say that he remembers weird and painful medical experiments.

*Although Senator Kelly is clearly a villain (in a private conversation later he said if it was up to him mutants would be locked away and people like him are needed for the "war," that according to Grey consists of mutants getting picked on), he's not a one-dimensional straw-man. When discussing the Mutant Registration Act with Grey before the Senate, he raises the national-security implications of super-powered individuals--he cites how Kitty Pryde could easily walk into a bank or the White House. And she's fairly low on the mutant food chain--Magneto could take on an entire army by himself, while Xavier could park himself outside the White House and mind-control the president into launching a nuclear strike. If I lived in this world I'd oppose the Mutant Registration Act on the same grounds as Magneto, but there's a lot more gray here than with the Nuremberg Laws.

*There's some good snarky lines, like Magneto's response when Cyclops orders Storm (Haile Berry) to unleash lightning on him or Storm's Pre-Asskicking One-Liner to Toad. Most of my fellow podcasts thought that was a groaner, but I liked it. :) However, the best line of them all is the "yellow spandex" riff on the goofy comic-book costumes of the heroes.

*The special effects have really held up well. I don't recall a single instance of obvious CGI, obvious puppets, etc.

*Kelly's villainy is depicted in pretty subtle ways too--he keeps referring to Jean Grey as "Miss" instead of "Doctor" and this list of mutants he has in his hand are an obvious tie in with Joseph McCarthy, who claimed to have a list of 200 Communist spies in his hand.

*Wolverine's old injuries appearing when his healing factor is momentarily shorted out is a good science gag. One symptom of scurvy is that old wounds re-open, so even if cuts, bruises, etc. go away, to some degree they're still there. Given how scientifically implausible many X-men powers are (someone online pointed out that to generate laser blasts from his eyes, Cyclops would have to drink gasoline), that was actually pretty cool.

The Bad

*The minor villain Toad has a bit of New Powers As The Plot Demands thing going. Throughout the movie he's depicted as having a lengthy tongue he can use as a weapon as well as preternatural jumping ability, but in battle with Jean Grey, he somehow manifests the ability to spew gunk that clings to her face and threatens to suffocate her. It would've been better if he'd used his giant tongue as a weapon in that particular scene.

*Sabertooth's lengthy history with Wolverine, which is later revealed in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is never even hinted at. Although the movie depicts the reasons Wolverine lost his memory, there's no indication that Sabertooth ended in the same position. It would have been nice if Sabertooth kept dropping hints or even tried to sway Wolverine to his side, with Wolverine having absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

*There's a deleted scene where Storm is teaching students at Xavier's school about the conversion of Constantine that could have been left in the film, perhaps when Wolverine wakes up in Xavier's mansion and is wandering around. It'd be a nice bit of foreshadowing for the final confrontation.

The Verdict

*I'm not going to go out of my way to buy a new copy of the film, but it's pretty good. 8.0 out of 10.

Monday, June 6, 2016

News Article Roundup 6/6

It's been a long time since I've done a "News Article Round-Up" post featuring interesting news articles and commentary. Here goes...

Michael Bay is Giving "Britain's Loneliest Dog" 15 Minutes of Fame-Not only has Michael Bay included this no doubt incredibly sad and bored shelter dog in Transformers: The Last Knight, he's also going to try to get her adopted. I've got friends who criticized Michael Bay for his various excesses, I wrote "The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot" because I was so disappointed with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and I never even bothered with Transformers: Age of Extinction, but I think this is a really cool thing to do.

The Zoo That Wants To Release Wild Elephants In Denmark-This article is about "rewilding," or restoring places to their pre-human state. Some of the more radical variants involve bringing lions, tigers, elephants, etc. to North America and Europe. There's this article I found on The Atlantic that describes the emptying of rural parts of the U.S. So long as people aren't forcibly displaced or endangered by more dangerous types of wildlife, that doesn't seem like a bad idea to me. The reintroduction of wolves in various places doesn't seem to have caused problems.

This is Africa's Most Overlooked Achievement And It's Changing the Lives of Millions-Africa is one of many places that's skipped a generation of technology--for example, areas that never had landline phones now have lots and lots of mobile phones. This article describes another area where Africa has "skipped a generation"--a lot of rural villages now have small-scale solar power and wind power as opposed to feeding off gigantic industrial power-plants. This is pretty cool, as it provides Africans with modern technologies while at the same time avoiding the environmental problems gigantic power plants, huge power-line infrastructures, etc. Decentralized power generation would be the way to go for the whole world and it looks like Africa's leading the way.

Engineered bacterium inhales carbon dioxide and hydrogen and excretes fuel alcohols-Get enough of this going and goodbye greenhouse effect. I have heard some concerns about the bacteria potentially getting out of control and causing problems, but perhaps there's the possibility of engineering them so they can't reproduce beyond a certain point? Think the "terminator gene" to avoid GMO plants spreading their genes to wild plants.

Ten Slavic Spirits and Monsters You've Probably Never Heard Of-For those of you who are into writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror, here are some new critters for you to use.

Enter Hiero Desteen, Pursued By Mutant Wolverines-This isn't really a news article per se, but it's still pretty cool. It's a linked series of blog posts in which the blogger, who's a college professor somewhere, re-reads and comments on the novel Hiero's Journey. I first read that novel in high school and it was a big influence on my Wastelands series. I re-read both the first book and the sequel The Unforsaken Hiero recently and they're still fun. The blogger's comments are also pretty darn funny, including the following commentary on the first chapter:

Things are looking dark for Hiero, and it appears that our novel is about to become a short story, when of a sudden Gorm the Bear comes out of hiding and bites S'nerg in the balls.This was probably the point at which, while I was first reading Hiero's Journey, I realized I was going to finish the novel. You just don't get mutant-bear groin-biting in conventional stories.

I hope all of the above content interested you...