Duncan Jones’ Warcraft – The Most Underappreciated Film of the Year

Three things before we start:

First, I’m a big fan of Duncan Jones’ previous works, Moon and Source Code, two taut, muscular sci-fi films that strike the balance between being clever, cool, and making me really feel something for the characters.

Second, the extent of my involvement with and enthusiasm for the Warcraft universe begins and ends with an hour spent playing Warcraft III quite a few years ago. I’ve never played the MMORPG and I know virtually nothing about the world and its mythology. In other words, I have no emotional investment – positive or negative – in the games.

And third: it’s been hard to avoid the waves of vitriol that have been crashing against Jones’ attempt to adapt this popular franchise for the big screen, so other than the – admittedly faint – hope that this wouldn’t be a stain on the director’s otherwise excellent résumé, my expectations walking into Warcraft were set pretty close to zero.

Spoiler alert: it’s not even remotely shit.

Jones’s script (co-written with Charles Leavitt) has adapted what I believe is the first game’s story, about the origin of the war between humans and orcs in the kingdom of Azeroth. Mapping out both sides with an impartial hand, we follow a warband of orcs led through a portal from their dying world into the lush and peaceful Azeroth by the leery, villainous Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). Among them, Toby Kebbell’s Durotan, with his heavily pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin), and the half-orc slave Garona (Paula Patton, managing to look great through the green makeup and prominent tusks).

Meanwhile on the human side we have Vikings’ Travis Fimmel as knight Anduin Lothar, young renegade magician Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and the somewhat sneaky “Guardian” Medivh, played with a kind of sweaty impatience by Ben Foster (I mean that in a good way). I also found it weird and hilarious and awesome that the noble king and queen are played respectively by Preacher’s Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga. So Azeroth is ruled by Jesse Custer and Tulip.

Contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t find the story or the world-building too difficult to follow; at its heart Warcraft has a fairly simple narrative that’s embellished by action, conflict and character work. In other words, those like me unfamiliar with the source material should find this easily accessible.

I’d heard a lot of criticism that many scenes in the film look cheap or tacked together, given its heavy reliance on green screen performances and CGI. Going into it I had expectations of work as shoddy as Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (or really any of Luhrmann’s films). But actually, apart from the odd lapse, like King Llane’s plasticky armour, this film looks spectacular. Its aesthetic is a kind of chunky, bright fantasy and even if that isn’t your cup of tea you’d be an idiot to not at least appreciate the incredible performance capture effects of the orcs. The precision with which every micro-expression and tic is captured makes these already well-developed and -acted characters one of the film’s major victories.

Speaking of which, Toby Kebbell – an actor I’ve admired since his knockout performance in Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla – is fantastic as Durotan. He’s a beautifully rounded character, and his interactions with his wife and son are some of the more interesting, quiet moments of the film.

Paula Patton’s performance as conflicted outcast Garona is another standout. She’s one of the more complex and interesting characters in the film, and writers take her in an unexpected and refreshing direction.

Jones handles the big action scenes deftly, too; they’re fun, well-executed and often quite tense.

The film’s not without its flaws though. Some of the dialogue can be quite heavy-handed in that taking-itself-too-seriously type of fantasy, with lots of lore and syllabically obese names, and the villains’ motivations aren’t exactly rock-solid but there’s a nice element of tragedy (and addiction) to Ben Foster’s Medivh that makes this a little more forgivable. The human characters aren’t quite as developed or interesting as the orcs. Ruth Negga seems a little wasted as the queen.

I read an interview with Jones where he explained that his original cut of the film was half an hour longer than the theatrical version. The studio’s editorial interference is glaring at times. Certain character arcs culminate in nothing or remain underdeveloped, and the ending is a sloppy post-climax rush.

I don’t know how many of these issues would be fixed with a director’s cut, but I’d love to see one. Hell, I even hope the film makes enough money to warrant a sequel, and that Jones returns to this (potential) franchise he so lovingly brought to the big screen. He’s crafted an interesting world with engaging characters and some great conflict, and this first film comes across as a kind of epic tragedy painted bright and bold.

So sure, it’s not exactly a masterpiece, but it definitely didn’t deserve the overwhelmingly negative critical reception it’s received so far. Not only did I find Warcraft to be an enormously entertaining film, the amount of emotional depth was a very pleasant surprise.

 

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Review: The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror

The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror
The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror by Dylan Trigg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ll be honest, a lot of this book went right over my head. My having no prior in-depth knowledge of philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, Schelling or Meillassoux can probably be allocated a portion of the blame. As a reading experience I felt myself gripping tightly to the edges of ideas and revelations, before the promise of illumination slipped out of my sweaty grasp and I fell back into the abyss.

The Thing is also an incredibly dense book at times, and Trigg has a penchant for stringing a lot of academic words together to present his ideas. This is fine for people familiar and comfortable with that kind of writing and those sorts of theories. My reading experience often required a scalpel and a magnifying glass, my ham-fisted dissections resulting in as many frustrations and questions as they did understanding.

Having said that, Trigg’s work still brims with interesting ideas and theories, and it was captivating enough – especially with its references to films by Cronenberg and Carpenter, and its exploration of the abject – to keep me reading to the end, persevering through the more obscure tracts.

I feel like any complaints I have about this book are more concerned with my inability to grasp certain complex subjects than any fault of the author’s.

On the other hand, I would have enjoyed more of an examination of horror literature, at least a more in-depth look at Lovecraft’s work, which gets a few pages’ worth of attention and a subsequent scattering of references. Even a wider variety of cosmic horror fiction would have been more than welcome. Then again, Trigg’s other major work, The Memory of Place, may provide some deeper exploration of these subjects.

Overall, a mostly engaging work that definitely sparked my interest in further avenues of research.

View all my reviews

An Orgy of Strange – John Claude Smith’s Riding the Centipede (Review)

As soon as I read the words “orgy of strange” in John Claude Smith’s debut novel, I knew I had to use it for the title of this review. It perfectly crystallises the feel of Riding the Centipede, a kind of grungy beatnik horror pulp noir that throws everything it’s got in your face. Needless to say, everything it’s got is viscous and toxic and fucking awesome.

At its core, Centipede is a chase narrative, the road from injection A to mastication B littered with weird, violent obstacles. Involved in this chase are three protagonists through which the novel cycles in alternating chapters: private investigator Terrance Blake, hired by Hollywood socialite Jane Teagarden to find her missing brother, Marlon; the murderous and – literally – nuclear Rudolf Chernobyl, who’s hunting Marlon for his own mysterious employer; and finally, the elusive quarry himself, the tense-fluid Marlon Teagarden, driven by his drug-soaked quest to ride the titular centipede as he makes his way through the terrifying, horrific world of the “dark frontier” in search of this ultimate, reality-bending experience.

These characters are all both interesting and, let me just say, pretty damn cool. Check out those names, for a start, the way they roll so deliciously off the tongue.

There did seem to be an adherence to some clichés here, like the embittered PI haunted by the death of his child, but Blake’s arc – and the others’ – is what makes him unique among hardboiled dicks. What I’d initially thought of as a formulaic throwaway backstory, a flimsy impetus for rote brooding, actually proved me utterly wrong by culminating in one of the most tender, tragic scenes in the whole book, a concise piece of character work that left me a little emotionally bruised. The point at which this flashback takes place is also part of its impact; Smith gives it the heartwrenching/-soaring circularity of a great blockbuster film. What else could you want in a book but great/weird action beats, and an emotional connection to those beats.

Smith’s novel is a bit of a love letter to the Beat Generation, and particularly William S Burroughs – to the extent that Burroughs features as a character, a “man who dreamed of becoming an insect” – but it also references a range of films, literature and art.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’ve never read any of the Beat Generation writers – they’re on my list though, I swear! – so there are probably a few nuances and references in this book that went over my head or just seemed like another feather of weirdness in the narrative’s abundant plumage. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying said weirdness. Smith really pulls you in to the sticky, dirty world he creates. It’s a dark world but certainly not a sombre one. Centipede’s is a colourful darkness, of blood and vomit and viscera all soaked in a liberal dousing of batshit crazy. It’s like that scene with all the lizards in Fear and Loathing, only the lizards are real and they’re about to take a bite. All of this engaged me in a very visual, tactile way; I’d love to see a no-holds-barred film version by someone like David Cronenberg or Ben Wheatley or even Guillermo del Toro.

The plotting isn’t squeaky-clean, but then hygiene isn’t something I’d associate with any element of Centipede. Smith tackles some fairly dark themes here – the obvious ones being drug addiction and child abuse – in an often graphic and unapologetic way. These elements don’t overtake the sheer fun of the book, though; they’re the dark fallible anchors that ground the characters in this weird, ugly world they find themselves in. The narrative instead wears its mask of drugged-out loony horror proudly, grinning ear to ear.

If I have a complaint it’s that, unfortunately, the number of grammatical blips and errors in the text kept snagging at my immersion. I think this probably comes down to the editing rather than the author, and it’s far from a deal-breaker, just not exactly ideal.

I felt that the dialogue, too, was occasionally problematic. It seemed to alternate between fizzing and fumbling, a snappy colloquial with a vernacular rhythm all its own at times, at others a little too formal and rehearsed.

But these are minor complaints in an otherwise snappy, vibrant novel. There are some absolute gems of linguistic talent here; beautiful, clever turns of phrase that encourage a lingering eye, like when “Blake’s thoughts” for example, “were dogpaddling to the edge of understanding, but never getting to shore,” or the moment he notices a “quirky, scratchy sound, like electricity gone to rot.”

Ultimately, the book felt like a child’s drawing of madness rendered in bright, thick crayon strokes. It was fascinating and promising and not at all what I expected, and I can’t wait to read whatever Smith produces next.

Greener Pastures – Michael Wehunt [REVIEW]

Greener_pastures

A poorly executed reenactment of the terror I felt while reading this. Damn good cover though!

Last night by 3am I was feeling all breathless and itchy, a sense of melancholy soaking through me as I lay in bed, kind of awestruck and immobile and not really wanting to turn out the light.

But I wasn’t doing what you think I was doing. (Although I’m not sure how awestruck that activity leaves a person.) Actually, I’d just finished reading Michael Wehunt’s delightful little debut collection of weird stories, Greener Pastures (which you can and should purchase from Shock Totem here).

First though, I need to take a moment to praise somebody other than the author. Just look at this book’s cover. It drips atmosphere. I’ve been a fan of the enormously talented Michael Bukowski since I discovered yog-blogsoth, the blog where he renders every literary monstrosity in his painstaking visual style. He’s already cleaned out Lovecraft’s oeuvre and is now working his way through every other horror writer in existence. The point is, you should definitely judge this book by its cover, because both are incredible.

But back to the writer. I was chilled by these stories. I was dumbstruck and harried and torn apart, not only by the beautifully realised supernatural elements – those dark squirming wonders either creeping out from the words’ edges or baring themselves without shame to the reader – but also by the people thrown into these situations and encounters. This is where the collection really shines. Wehunt’s character work is unrivalled, and he manages to pull off depths of human flaw and pain and wanting in these short stories that many novel-length works don’t come close to achieving. Each story is anchored by some sort of failed relationship or moment of heartbreak or dilemma. They may dream, but most of the people here are not happy, or at least don’t end up so. That’s less a spoiler and more a state of equilibrium for the worlds Wehunt conjures. Or rather, the world over which he paints the weird with masterful strokes. And what a variety of weirdness there is. These stories explore cosmic horror, Christian imagery and vampires – among much else – from angles I never knew were possible.

And this is without mentioning the prose. Wehunt’s words are a quiet creeping poetry, and evocative, in a way, of the darkest of folktales. I say poetry deliberately because there’s a kind of lyrical economy in Wehunt’s use of language that evokes the best kind of poem. It’s all beautiful and haunting and pierces deep, but every word is deliciously readable and, more often than not, relatable in some way. It’s this masterful, controlled writing that really draws out the gruesome otherworldly beauty in which every story and every moment is saturated.

Though not all strictly horror-oriented, a few of the works here left my skin crawling with a terror that the written word hasn’t evoked in me since Laird Barron’s best work. “October Film Haunt: Under the House” does a magnificent job of transposing the structure of a found footage film into the written form, merging horror tropes with metafiction in one of the collection’s scarier inclusions. The mythos built in this story seems connected to one earlier in the volume, “Onanon,” at least in some aesthetic way. The latter is another incredibly clever and terrifying play on the nature of language and stories.

Other stories tackle a beautiful breed of body horror, child abuse, ghosts, parallel universes and the things that lurk at the edges of our sight. All of them still crowd my head. The title story is a short one but drowns you in its sense of lightlessness and dread; I read this outside on a sunny day, but in my immersion noticed none of my surroundings.

And that’s exactly what I want from everything I read: to forget, for however long, that the world around me exists. I guess it’s just a bonus if I’m also scared to turn out all the lights.

Basically, I have nothing bad to say about Greener Pastures, except that I’ve finished it now and will never again have that wonderful first experience of reading it. But you can, if you haven’t. So hurry up and buy it, before the lights dim or the mountain starts bleeding or feathers begin to sprout from your skin.