I actually enjoyed Ghost in the Shell… yeah, I know. Let me explain.

It was, of all things, a review by The Economist that finally convinced me to give the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell a chance. I mean, I make no secret of the fact that it’s one of my preferred sources of news and opinion (even when I disagree with them they always make a strong, considered and even-handed argument), but that’s generally of the political and economic nature rather than whether or not the latest sci fi blockbuster out of Hollywood is worth watching or not. I found the review refreshingly free of the moaning and biases that I usually see on the nerdier side of internet. It was the last paragraph that really got my attention though:

Not everyone is happy about the “rainbow casting”. When Ms Johansson was announced as the Major, the film was condemned online as another example of “white-washing”, that is, the Hollywood tendency to take Asian roles and hand them to white actors. You could argue, as Mr Oshii has, that the new “Ghost in the Shell” is separate from the old one, and that there is no pressing reason why an American film should be identical to a Japanese one, or why a cyborg should be Japanese in the first place. (In the manga comic that inspired the first film, Major is called Motoko Kusanagi, but has blue hair and pink eyes). And while that argument hasn’t won over the detractors, the fact is that its racial diversity is one of its most distinctive and laudable aspects. A mono-cultural city just doesn’t make sense in science fiction anymore. The “Ghost in the Shell” remake may not be as pioneering as the anime was, but its mix-and-match casting is the most truly futuristic thing about it.

Truth be told I was one of those detractors. And now that I’ve actually seen the film I can safely say that I still am. It’s hard not to cringe a little at the makeup and digital work meant to make Scarlett Johansson look more Asian, and a late movie reveal of the Major’s origins can be taken either as further evidence of white-washing or an ironic wink by a self-aware movie-maker (white male chief executive pushing his own views of physical perfection and racial identity) depending on how forgiving you’re willing to be. Probably it’s both.

There’s no denying that ScarJo does an amazing job with the role, playing the cyborg slowly reconnecting with her emotions, struggling to deal with the existential crisis and confusion that follows. I know this sounds odd, but she act like what I’d expect a cyborg to look like, small things that come off as intrinsically unnatural and veer towards the uncanny valley. Her walk most of all, a long and stiff stride without any of the sway and swagger you normally expect from movie heroines, but exactly what you’d expect from a robot. Am I saying that an Asian actress couldn’t have done just as good (maybe even better) a job? Of course I’m bloody not. Am I saying that they were right to pick Scarlett Johansson for one of the few lead roles that could be made available for an Asian actress? Again, of course I’m bloody not. But I can recognise a good performance when I see one, and that walk impressed me.

The whole cast impressed me, quite frankly. I was worried at first about Pilou Asbaek as Batou, mostly ’cause he didn’t sound like what I’m used to. His voice wasn’t deep enough and the accent was wrong. But I got over it quickly enough. In the anime Batou is this big, imposing dude who naturally fills any space he’s in, but not because he’s trying; because he just is a big, imposing dude. And Asbaek nailed it. Michael Pitt stomps about doing a fantastic cybernetic Frankenstein’s Monster, furious with the creators that rejected and left him to die (also big props to the sound editors who had him sounding like a glitching computer). I would have liked to have seen more of the rest of Public Security Section 9’s team (Ishikawa and Saito were always favourites of mine), but I liked their inclusion of new character Ladriya (played by Polish-Kurdish Danusia Samal). And then they had motherfuckin’ ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano playing Aramaki (with a perfect haircut), and that’s all I need to say about that casting choice.

The visuals are stunning, drifting over enormous concrete blocks and shining skyscrapers equally plastered with garish neon advertisements. Body modifications are common and usually gruesome, practicality regularly winning out over aesthetics. The fight scenes are violent (without being bloody, thankyou M-Rating) and range from graceful slow-motion gravity-defying shootouts, to quick, grim, gritty and frenetic room-clearing, all of it artfully shot. The special effects are a stunning mix of practical effects and CG.

And the complaints I’ve seen are often minor and ridiculous, the efforts of folk looking for something to complain about. One reviewer was annoyed that all of Aramaki’s lines are delivered in Japanese yet everyone understands him just fine, without any explanation given to the audience as to how this is possible. Mate, it’s a fucking sci fi film where people talk telepathically and you can download an entire language straight into your brain, they don’t need to explain every little goddamned detail. Another complained about the mid-movie twist being too predictable. Mate, this film is not going for subtlety (they telegraph who the real villain is in the first bloody scene). Sometimes it’s not about the audience learning the big secret, it’s about the characters learning what we already know. That’s what made Columbo so great. And anyone who reckons that this film isn’t philosophical enough, does not ask what it means to be human often enough, quite frankly doesn’t remember the original anime film. By the time we met the original Major Motoko Kusanagi she’d been going through an existential crisis so long it had gotten boring (it was the sequel that got heavy with the philosophical discussions).

This is the kind of solid scifi that delivers a message not by directly asking a question but by creating a world in which asking that question is necessary and inevitable.

I really enjoyed this film. But I can’t recommend it. The Economist is right the diverse cast was one of the cleverest parts of the world we see in the film, but the fact remains that all the characters with the most lines, except for Takeshi’s Aramaki, are played by white actors. They might have been good performances, but they were where the diversity was needed most. So I cannot recommend this film.

That’s the great tragedy of this film. It’s a good movie brought down by the poor choice of a good cast. What a shame.

Old School Reviews: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

I’ve had a little trouble opening this review because it comes with a troubling (for me at least) admission. I’d never watched this movie until a few days ago. I mean, sure, I’d caught a couple of scenes over the years – a snippet here, a moment there – but I’d never actually sat through longer than a few minutes of The Magnificent Seven, and never on its own merits. I couldn’t even make my usual claim, that I’d watched “beginning, middle and end, but not in that order and not in one sitting” like I can with so many other movies. Why does that trouble me?

Well, for one, I have a soft spot for Westerns. I find it to be one of the most adaptable genres in fiction (fuck I love a good space western, from Firefly to the Borderlands games), and even love the works that thoroughly tear apart the mythology built around it (Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West still stands as one my favourite books ever and I was probably way too young to read it when I did). The second reason is that The Magnificent Seven is such an excellent movie and I cannot believe it’s taken me this long to find that out for myself.

Based on classic 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai (which I also really need to watch, given how many films it’s influenced over the years) and released in 1960, The Magnificent Seven tells the story of unemployed gunslinger, hired by a small Mexican village to help defend themselves from bandits. He finds six others willing to help, and are paid a pittance of 20 dollars (“That won’t even pay for my bullets!”), food and board for six weeks of bloody work. In time, the seven fall for the village, coming back to defend it in a climactic battle even after (spoiler alert for a fifty-fucking-six year old movie) some of the villagers betray them to the bandit leader, Calvera.

There’s such a huge cast that going through everyone would take longer than I’m willing to put the effort into, so let’s just mention the ones that stood out. Yul Brynner as the Seven’s leader Chris, who brings gravitas, kindness and practical authority to the role. A character with a firm grasp of the benefits of “teaching a man to fish.” Steve McQueen as Vin Tanner. Fuck, do I need to say anything else? Just, those eyes mate. Those eyes. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as one of the leading villagers, Hilario, a brave man desperate to create a better life for his children and people, incredibly loyal, intelligent and overall one of the most well-rounded characters in the film. He also shares one of the most endearing scenes in the film with Steve McQueen, while they’re hunting a trio of Calvera’s snipers. Eli Wallach as Calvera is something great as well, swagger and smalltalk unable to hide his willingness to commit violence at a moment’s notice, and utterly unable to comprehend why such talented killers are defending a pisspoor village with nothing to offer but three squares and gratitude, who then don’t even show a great deal of gratitude for most of the film.

The direction and fight choreography is about as good as you’d expect from 1960, and in more than a few ways even better. The deaths are over-dramatic and ridiculous, clutching and staggering and swooning in grand, sprawling heaps. But let’s not discount the absolute talent that was required to be shot off a horse without breaking your neck. Seriously, stuntmen were fucking amazing people, and still bloody are. The final battle is big and chaotic and as gritty as they could be before stuff like squibs were seeing wide use, and the fights before that are just as dramatic. There’s one moment in the first big fight between the Seven and Calvera that just made my jaw drop. Calvera and one of his henchmen are racing their horses through the village, perfectly synchronised as they hurdle over stone walls and whatever else is in their way, the camera following them as they go, and it’s both an amazing example of horsemanship and camerawork.

But what I really love about this film, what I really love, is the honesty of the film. I mean, the characters are all open about their motivations for the most part. Charles Bronson’s character is broke and desperate. Robert Vaughn’s Lee has lost his nerve and is on the run, and simply needs somewhere to hold up. Brad Dexter as Harry Luck thinks there’s more value to the village than what Chris is telling him (a gold mine, precious jewels, something) and that he’ll get a piece for defending it from Calvera. James Coburn as the lanky, laconic Britt is looking for a fight. As for Chris and Vin? Well, they’re never quite clear on why. This is just the work they do, and this cause is good as any other excuse to do it. Better, in Chris’ mind. The only one who seems to be there in some quest for heroism and glory is Chico, played by Horst Buchholz, something that is heavily discouraged by the others.

It goes further than simple character motivations though, greed or a lust for violence. Calvera’s men are starving, they need the villager’s corn or they wouldn’t survive the winter. We meet Chris and Vin driving a hearse to a graveyard, simply because they’re the only ones willing to risk getting shot by a bunch of angry bigots who don’t want an Indian buried on a ‘white’ hill. Charles Bronson’s character, Bernardo O’Reilly, berates a group of boys who call their fathers cowards for doing their very best trying to protect their sons, that being willing to back down for the right reasons requires its own kind of bravery that O’Reilly certainly doesn’t possess. When Chico discovers one of the village women, and learns that they’d been sent to hide in the hills because the village men said that the Seven would rape them he’s outraged by the lack of trust. Chris just goes, “well, yeah, we might” (paraphrasing here). He’s not saying they’re going to rape the villages women, but he acknowledges it as a valid fear that a bunch of well-armed, underpaid strangers might feel entitled towards taking additional payment from the village women. Shit, can you remember the last time a movie acknowledged this? That male heroes are often depicted being entitled to sex? I can’t. And here’s this guy not angry, just going, “I completely understand and you made the right decision given the information available to you.”

This film rips the shit out of toxic masculinity. And it’s a fucking western from 1960, the genre and tail-end of a decade that is responsible for so many of the most harmful tropes. I mean, yeah, there aren’t a whole lot of female characters, but still. This is definitely going in the pool room. Somewhere besides Mad Max: Fury Road.

Seriously, why have I not watched this film before now? This is my jam.

Old School Reviews: Titan A.E. (2000)

It’s funny, there’s a lot of bad things I can say about Titan A.E. Part of that can be blamed on the time it was made and who it was meant to appeal to. Part of it is a feeling of shoddiness that the film never seems to get past.

The tone is caught in a strange space between child-friendly animation and that gritty, grimy place we usually call “young adult” in a rather obvious attempt at pandering to adolescents with disposable income and a desire to be treated like a grown-up. There’s no swearing and the sexual innuendo is no worse than Monsters Inc. but the violence is surprising. We see one alien get comically blasted into goo, eyes and teeth, a number of sentient bat-bird things blown out of the sky, a few bloody wounds, and, at the end someone getting his fucking neck snapped. At the same time the sense of humour, when it occasionally appears, is as childish as a straight-to-DVD Disney movie. Throw in a high-concept sci-fi plot and moral that’ll fly over the heads of most “young adults” and you end up with a tone that, while not messy as such, is too far one way and not far enough another to have the kind of emotional weight that the movie seems to want. Add in the music, safe post-grunge rock that I’m honest to god surprised didn’t include Pearl Jam, and you end up with some late-nineties/early-aughts executive committee’s definition of cool.

The animation is a similar hodgepodge of traditional (and probably budget friendly) 2D and what was not-even-really-cutting-edge-anymore 3D computer generations. It’s a mix that swings wildly between tolerable and jarring. A few of the 3D models, the individual Drej drones for example, fit into the environments and move about smoothly enough, but more often than not it’s that ugly, undetailed rendering typical of much low budget fare. This get’s even worse when you consider some of the films that were coming out at the same time (the above mentioned Monsters Inc.Shrek, even Fox’s own Ice Age). Meanwhile Titan A.E. can’t even seem to render a pretty cliff. What makes it worse is that the 2D animation, which still makes up a majority of the film’s visuals, is similarly lacking in quality. Movement and outlines are often choppy, sloppy and overall just lacking in a layer of polish. All in all, not as pretty as a film with a 75 million dollar budget should have been. You can’t help but wonder if they had used 2D animation for the whole thing it would have been a much better looking film, and more fondly remembered as a result. But 3D rendering had become the fashion by that point, and so this is what we got.

So yeah, there are problems with this film. But there’s also a lot of good things to say as well. The character designs are excellent, both human and alien, with little details and consistencies that add to each. The alien character Preed for example is voiced by the charming, extravagant and educated Nathan Lane, but his character is ugly badly dressed and battle-worn (one of his ears is missing, replaced by cybernetics in his scalp), showing him to merely a thug pretending at being a gentleman. The alien designs are familiar enough (Stith looks like a kangaroo, Gune looks like turtle) for us to identify them and identify with them while still looking sufficiently unreal, and their voice actors commit to the roles and personalities beautifully. Would have been nice if the asian character Akima had been voiced by an asian actress, but this is the world we live and at least the crew allowed for some multiculturalism. The character development feels as natural and unforced as is possible in 94 minutes, the plot develops quickly enough. The use of lighting and colour is excellent and the script and dialogue is snappy and a pleasure to listen to.

But it is that high-concept sci-fi that I really love about this film. The message about humanity that it is trying to push. Y’see the film starts with the alien antagonists, the Drej, deciding that the human race has become to much of a threat to be allowed to continue to exist, so they come over and blow up Earth. Now, a thousand books, movies and video games that have come before usually fall within the grim’n’gritty themes of humanity probably deserving it a little bit, claiming that our propensity for violence and destruction would shake up any galactic order. But the Titan that the Drej fear so much is not a tool of destruction, it is in fact a tool of unparalleled creation damn near close to magic. To the contrary, it is the Drej who are only capable of destroying, who are incapable of creating, and terrified at what those creators are capable of.

And it is so fucking refreshing for a science fiction plot that’s not “human beings could have such potential if they just stopped killing each other and everything they meet”, and is instead “human beings reached their potential ages ago, it was fucking amazing and now we need to protect it.”

There’s something very hopeful about that. Something very encouraging. And a great lesson to be remembered as science moves forward. It is not the destroyers who wield true power, but the creators. And those that build will ultimately triumph over those that tear down.

Reviewing the Old School: Braveheart (1995)

I’m not sure if I like this film or not. I used to. Loved this film actually, but I’m not sure I do anymore.

This was another one of those films that my mates and I would just casually quote in conversation. Seriously, we can have complex discussions on current affairs in Simpsons, Family Guy and movie quotes. One mate could pull off a pretty solid Scottish accent and another rocked an impressive Edwards Longshanks. “You dropped your rock,” was a common response to queries and commentary, as was “Bring me Wallace. Alive, if possible. Dead, just as good.” Amazing how easy it is to fit that into casual conversation.

Rewatching it, Braveheart is still really bloody quotable. Especially Stephen, played wonderfully by David O’Hara with some of the best lines in the film. “The Almighty says don’t change the subject, just answer the fucking question!” I fucking love Stephen, still get’s me laughing.

But the biggest problems I have with this film are also with the script, which was very obviously written by a Yank. Obviously being because Mel Gibson won’t shut up about freedom. It’s all “they cannae take our freedom” this and “lead us to freedom” that. I mean, yeah, I get that most of the Scots we see in this film are supposed to be illiterate and uneducated, but William is supposed to speak four different languages (I assume he speaks some version of Gaelic, even if we never hear him say anything Gaelic), surely he has a wider vocabulary than that? In all honesty though the rhetoric we see in this film takes a heavily American slant, focusing on that single word, painting broad strokes with that single brush.

It’s funny, when you study nationalistic movements even the groups that have “Freedom” in their name don’t just blanket the word around. They talk about independence, self-governance, civil liberties, rule of law, places within the law, ethnic superiority, tribal loyalty and protecting tradition. The slogan of the French Revolution was ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ not ‘Freedom, Freedom and Freedom.’ Basically what I’m trying to say is that I’m old enough to now know how stupid most of the ‘inspiring’ dialogue is, and rewatching the film was, well, disappointing.

There’s more to be said about this film, but I don’t want to say it because it’s not going to affect my opinion of the film. The historical inaccuracies (the Scots would have been wearing trousers not kilts, and the Battle of Stirling was actually the Battle of Stirling Bridge) and the tacked on romances (I wonder if they’d still get an Oscar for fridging Wallace’s sort-of wife in this day and age – also, Wallace fucking a French princess) are more than a little jarring, but these things don’t matter nearly as much to me as the fact that the speech in front of the gathered army at Stirling is not nearly as epic as I remember it to be.

But it’s still really, really fucking quotable. Or at least Stephen and Edward Longshanks still are. I don’t know what to tell you mate. I just can’t decide on this one.

Gonna throw it out there as well: this film is pretty homophobic.

Let’s call this one a “make up your own mind” and leave it at that, yeah?

Reviewing the Old School: Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

When I was young, real young, I watched the original Ocean’s 11. The one with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr and a dozen other of the biggest names in film and music at the time. I don’t remember much about the film (I was like fucking eight years old), just that I was a bit of a fan of Sinatra at the time and the guy who put the film on, a former neighbour who was still a close friend of the family, was always more of Dean Martin fan. Or at least he was quicker to sing Dean Martin songs. Love that guy. This anecdote has nothing to do with what I think of the 2001 remake. I just like to mention when I’ve seen the original.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney as the titular Danny Ocean, Brad Pitt as his best friend Rusty Ryan, Andy Garcia as the “smart as he is ruthless” Terry Benedict, Julia Roberts as Danny’s estranged wife Tess, and nine other fantastic actors playing fantastic roles, Ocean’s Eleven is a movie about a bunch of professional crooks robbing three casinos. Impossible, we are told at the beginning of the film. A suicide mission. Can’t be done. Danny and Rusty must be nuts. Must be. And yet they seem so delightfully sane.

I wanna take a moment to praise director Soderberg and, just as importantly, editor Stephen Mirrione. This movie is beautifully directed and, just as importantly, expertly cut. The shots are intimate but inclusive of large parts of the cast (without revealing the plot), fast without ever being confusing, with perfectly timed reactions and dialogue from the characters, and it’s all put together masterfully, never breaking flow even as it cuts back and forth between time and perspectives at the end. It’s a slow burn heist film that never feels slow. And it doesn’t treat you like an idiot. When they reveal how the heist works you feel like you’re being let in on a big secret, previous lines of dialogue and focus shots suddenly make sense, like a magician revealing how they pulled off a particularly entertaining trick.

This is one of those movies that occupies a particularly nostalgic piece of my heart, as do the two sequels. It was one of those films that my best mates and I all watched and watched again, not as quoted as movies like Troy or Gladiator but still formative. On the one hand the characters in this film are the epitome of cool. Even the losers in the group – the Malloy brothers (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan), Livingstone (Eddie Jemison) and Linus (Matt Damon) – have their own sense of style and intelligence that they own. For all their quirks and bad accents (I don’t care Don Cheadle, I love Basher anyway) these people are the best at what they do. Proper villains. And you love them for it. Even Terry Benedict, the antagonist of the piece, is fucking awesome. He’s got this soft monotone, constantly cool and calm even when the shit is hitting the fan and he’s obviously seething with rage. Andy Garcia is a bad-arse. Not necessarily a great antagonist – he doesn’t seem to hinder Danny and Rusty’s plans at all – but a great character.

More importantly is the relationship between the characters. There’s a bond between them all that is just a joy to watch. Squad goals and all that. Y’see Danny and Rusty don’t finish each other’s sentences, they answer them. Knowing someone so well you can talk to someone without needing to talk? That’s a friendship right there. As it is with all the others. The Malloy brothers, constantly irritating each other yet still obviously close remind me of two of my other mates. Livingstone is that guy or gal that everyone else is constantly trying to push out of their comfort zone, watching from a distance, knowing they’ll do it but never being quite sure. Same with Linus, though they’re less sure and are planning on telling him everything he did wrong in as loving a way as is possible after their massive fuck-up. Not sure who the Amazing Yen (Shaobo Qin) is in my circle of friends. Wait, yeah I do. Don’t worry, you don’t know him. Someone who’ll occasionally voice an opinion and only one other person will have any idea what he’s saying. Shit, that might actually be me as well. Then there’s Frank C (Bernie Mac), a good guy who’s able to turn a discussion about moisturiser into a threat with a firm handshake. Quietly confident, but also the guy who knows what everyone else is up to.

I love this film.

It’s funny how it’s overtaken the memory of the original, y’know? I mean, this sort of happened at the same time as a couple of other remakes from the sixties like The Italian Job and Get Carter. I actually don’t mind the remakes all that much, genuinely enjoyed The Italian Job, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re remakes. The originals are still the classics in everyone’s minds, while the remakes were just throwaways. That could be because of Michael Caine. It’s probably because of Michael Caine. Doesn’t change the fact that Ocean’s Eleven surpassed Ocean’s 11 in the cultural mindset. I bet there are kids right now who have no idea that there even was a 1960s original. I bet there are grown-arse adults who have no idea. And I don’t mind. ‘Cause I love this film.

The orc’s in the detail: Or why I did not love Warcraft.

So I went and saw Warcraft a couple of days ago. Got really drunk afterwards and had a particularly nasty hangover the next day. Don’t normally get headaches like that. This has nothing to do with the film, of course. I just felt like sharing.

Anyway, I got a pair of mates together and went and saw Warcraft. Both of them had played a fair bit of the games and had a firm grasp of the lore. Me? Never played a Warcraft game in my life. No, wait, I think I tried to play a bit of one campaign mission of Warcraft II or III back in highschool, but didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on so jumped out pretty quick. Soaked in a bit of lore from spending so much time immersed in nerd culture, but it doesn’t really go beyond: Alliance equals humans and dwarves and shit, generally the good guys; and Horde equals orcs and wolves and shit, generally the bad guys. So I went in relatively clean. They went in dirty. What did I think?

Honestly, it was a bit shit.

I mean, not especially shit. Not terrible. But a bit shit. Unimpressive. Not particularly good. And that’s a bit of a shame. Everytime we get a film adaptation of a video game franchise (and they’re always franchises) there’s a bit of hope around. I’m not entirely sure what we’re hoping for anymore. We’ve got mainstream acceptance (every man and his grandmum are playing some video game or another) and we’ve pretty well established that games are an artistic medium (or at least the people that fought against this are either dead or proven to not have a clue what they’re talking about). Maybe it’s because a film adaptation has always been the benchmark of success for an intellectual property, vindication for fans of the book or comic or cartoon or boardgame. A statement that, yes, this thing you love is worth spending two hundred million dollars on and a theatrical release. Maybe we just hope that this movie about something we love won’t be shit.

Maybe that was why I didn’t love this film. I’m not a fan of the Warcraft games. The two blokes I went with, they’re fans of the Warcraft games. They enjoyed it more than me. My mate Jordan (one of the gismos over at Evade Gismo) absolutely loved it, to his great surprise. He did not want to see it ’til I told him I convinced him, told him that if it succeeded I wanted to see it work and if it failed I wanted to see the trainwreck. I was curious, I think he was concerned about them butchering the source material. He thought it was excellent. Loved it. I thought it was a bit shit.

It wasn’t trainwreck bad, and I could see why my mates really enjoyed it. There’s the bones of a pretty awesome, epic film experience. And the orcs look fuckin’ amazing. Really great. Like, I was expecting some proper uncanny valley shit but these guys and girls fit into the world so well and so easily. But the movie still fails to deliver, for big and small reasons.

Too many characters with too many names that are bloody hard to keep track of with pretty bloody atrocious characterisation. I mean, yeah, Duracell the orc is noble and all that. I couldn’t remember his name by the end of it, and his scenes are full of grand sacrifice for no discernable cause or consequence. Seriously the guy goes and {probably a massive spoiler} and nothing changes. Not a fucking thing. Orc Gamora makes no fucking sense. She’s loyal to the orcs. No, she’s loyal to the humans. No she’s loyal to both. But she’s killing orcs right now. But she’ll kill humans later. But she’ll be sad about it. Why the fuck is she hell was she loyal to the orcs at all though? They were the ones who chained her up and have been treating her like shit her whole life ’cause she’s got smaller teeth or something. I think they’re trying to push the whole this is just orc culture and society and what she’s used to, but she sure is happy to push all of that aside as soon as Queen Only-Other-Lady-With-A-Speaking-Role gives her a blanket. Then there’s that Aussie actor who plays Ragnar Lothbrok in Vikings playing Ragnar Lothbrok right down to the way he stands. I wonder it it’s because there was so little characterisation in the script and directions that he had no choice but to pull out a bit of Ragnar, because the director is a big Ragnar fan so put that characterisation into the script and directions or because he just really likes playing Ragnar so is bringing it to his other roles. Probably a mixture of the three.

You’ll notice at this point I’m not using the actual character names. That is because I’m struggling to remember most of them and I cannot be arsed to look them up.

I’m not even sure if the king of the humans gets a name. He just seems to be called “the king,” or the more familial “our king.” Awful hair though. Seriously, he’s got the kind of stupid fucking hair you’d see in period pieces or medieval fantasy around the seventies and eighties, along with electro-synth soundtracks. Because kids love electro-synth. The orc leader Goldan (I think that might actually be his real name) is pretty cool. Spends the film all hunched and menacing and evil wizardy until near the end when he goes all King Bumi on us. Cauldron the mage get’s some of the worst lines in the film and he hams them up pretty bad. Medieve doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially given how bloody obvious it is that he’s {probably another spoiler}.

And those are just my issues with the characters. I mean, there’s nothing really terrible about them. I don’t hate anyone. But, they’re just a bit shit. And so you just don’t care about any of their noble sacrifices and meaningless deaths. ‘Cause yeah, some of them die.

The story suffers because it tries to take too much from the video games. Or is too much like a video game. Or takes the wrong things from video games. Like, there’s this opening scene where a dwarf gives Ragnar a flintlock pistol. Ragnar’s all “WTF’s this?” and the dwarf is like “This is the tits. We call it boom stick (title’s a work in progress)” and then a messenger arrives to tell Ragnar to get back to Stormwind. This is all to set up a fucking joke, where Ragnar shoots an orc and is surprised by how powerful his new toy is. That’s fucking all. The same effect could have been achieved by showing Ragnar tucking a musket into his belt before going to kill some orcs. Bam. Done. I just made a two hour goddamn movie a few precious minutes shorter. Because here’s the thing, shit like that is necessary in video games. It’s a tutorial level. Here’s your new weapon, here’s how it works, here’s a training level where you can try it out. But this does not translate well to film. It’s unnecessary and it breaks the flow of the film. Some shit needs to be explained. “Soldier knows how to use a boomstick” does not.

Fuck, I can go on and on. How do I explain this a little more simply?

Alright, you know how I said the orcs look amazing? All the CGI does. Real spectacular, lots of detail, the horde looks like it’s made up of individuals and the magic looks great. Real awesome job Visual FX guys and gals. But the practical effects? The practical effects look like shit. Stone walls look like painted wood and I’ve seen swords and armour homemade by cosplayers that looked better than half the costumes and props being used. Apparently the whole budget went into the computer animation, while the practical designers were given twenty bucks and told to make do.

What this film does right, it does really well. Like the orcs. But what it does wrong? I can spend a long time going through all it does wrong. Too long. Ask me later if you really want me to through all of it.

Couple of suggestions though for if you’re planning on making your own epic fantasy story (based on a video game or otherwise).

First, diversity matters. If there’s no reason for a character to not be a female, there’s no reason for a character to not be female. Now, I’m not talking about turning Ragnar or Cauldron into a lady. Nobody needs the hate mail that’d come from that. But there’s these two other Stormwind commanders, black clean-shaven guy and white bearded guy, who get basically no lines and are just there because even Ragnar can’t kill the entire hoard himself. There’s no reason why these both need to be dudes. One of them could very easily have been a lady. It doesn’t affect the story at all, and earns you a tonne of goodwill. Fuck, it might earn you a lot more money and positive social media attention as well. There’s little that Tumblr loves more than supporting female characters, and suddenly this random background lady becomes the star of a thousand AUs, theories and in depth character discussions.

Second, maybe think about where you start your story. Maybe start with something more personal rather than epic. I mean, yeah, epic is great and all, but Lord of the Rings waited until midway through the second film before expanding the scope from “these nine guys against fifty” to “a few thousand versus a lot more thousand.” Establish your world, establish your characters, tell a more personal story. Then threaten the end of the world.

I didn’t hate this film. It’s not terrible. It’s just a bit shit.

And I’m just throwing it out there: Ragnar is the brother of the Queen. A white guy with a Northern European accent is the brother of black woman who speaks the Queen’s English. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, I am saying the exact opposite in fact. They obviously had an interesting (possibly heartbreaking) family life, and went from a small village on the borders of the kingdom (if I recall the film correctly, which I’ve already acknowledged I probably don’t) to become the commander of the King’s armies and the mother of his children respectively. That sounds like some Game of Thrones level shit right there. I would watch that. I would watch the hell out of that.

Reviewing the Old School: Down Periscope (1996)

There was this period in the eighties and nineties where films about groups of ragtag misfits in the US military are able to achieve seemingly impossible success thanks to the unorthodox efforts of the misfit-in-chief. This era of screwball military comedies probably started with Private Benjamin (1980) and Stripes (1981) but saw a real renaissance through the nineties with Renaissance Man (1994), In the Army Now (1994), Major Payne (1995) and – that great Steve Martin vehicle – Sgt. Bilko (1996) just off the top of my head. Not always great films, but usually enjoyable enough.

Down Periscope – released in 1996, directed by David S. Ward – stars Kelsey Grammer as Tom Dodge, a navy veteran with two decades of experience and a tattoo on his penis. Yep. As you might expect from such a person, he’s known for his lack of discipline and relaxed leadership style. Having been prevented from taking command of his own submarine for years by a vindictive commanding officer, Admiral Graham (played by Bruce Dern), he’s finally given an opportunity by Admiral Winslow (Rip Torn) with an impossible task: sneak a diesel sub (a recommissioned museum piece) into two heavily guarded US Navy bases, launch flares and blow up some dummy warships. He’s given a handpicked crew of the submarine fleet’s losers, washouts, dropouts and special cases and the wargames begin. Hijinks ensue.

I don’t know. It’s sort of like if Tom Clancy wrote comedies. I mean, it probably doesn’t have the same sort of accuracy that Mr Clancy put into every detail of his books, but the jargon, the tension, the obstacles at times remind me of The Hunt for Red October except, y’know, funner. The ruses are clever and not completely unbelievable. You believe that, as outrageous as it seems at the time, Dodge has always got a plan, one that relies on both research (keeping an eye on the schedules for civilian traffic for example), experience (he knows how his fellow commanders think) and instinct (adapting on the fly). Looking at it, Dodge is a remarkably sympathetic character. He’s someone who cares about the wellbeing of his crew, and tries to get the best out of them by listening and encouraging them as individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses. He acts the father figure and it works well. You want him and his misfits to win.

The acting is good. Kelsey Grammer is the standout, but everyone brings a level of enthusiasm to their roles that makes them a delight to cheer for. Or cheer against. It’s not perfect. Far from it. Too many stereotypes and typecasts. Rob Schneider is playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect Rob Schneider to play in this film. He doesn’t do it badly per se, it’s why they kept on giving him these roles. But it breaks the suspension a little bit, if you take my meaning. Same with a few other characters but he’s the obvious example. Nothing movie breaking, but perhaps some a little better casting would have been in order.

And then there’s the ultimate question we have to ask about any comedy: Is it funny? Yeah. Yeah, it’s alright. Nothing gut-busting, I didn’t even really laugh out loud. But most of the jokes land right and I enjoyed it all the way through. A few lines fall flat, but nothing I’d write home about. Plenty of screwball and a bit of dry wit. Good stuff.

So yeah, go watch it. Remind yourself of a time when we made military comedies. We don’t really seem to make them any more, do we? Well, Hollywood doesn’t at least. I mean, it’s pretty understandable. America’s basically been in a state of war for the past fifteen years (and it ain’t ending anytime soon). The number of dead and wounded, veterans languishing in bureaucratic nightmares and unable to make the transition to civilian life has skyrocketed. The films being made, movies and series like Hurt LockerJarhead and Generation Kill kinda reflect that. Maybe that’s not a good thing. Maybe we need to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all sometimes. Maybe we need to have a look at the military films of the nineties. Maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Ah well, have some fun with Down Periscope at least. The Village People sing at the end.