Tag Archives: CGI

Warcraft (2016)

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I must admit, Warcraft was my least anticipated major blockbuster of 2016, with the possible exception of Suicide Squad (I’ll watch that too, but expectations cannot be lower). Having never played the popular video game on which the film is based, or with any intention of ever doing so, it seemed somewhat destined to be yet another disappointing video game adaptation, following in the footsteps of the likes of Doom, Street Fighter, and Prince of Persia.

Having said that, director Duncan Jones is quite a visionary filmmaker, and many were apparently quite optimistic that Warcraft would buck the trend. However, the trailers did not instill much confidence in me — giant, muscular creatures in large-scale battle scenes with humans and magicians, and loads and loads of CGI-heavy special affects. It was pretty much just Hollywood telling the same old story.

It was with such a mindset that I went to see Warcraft, and I have to say that I came out of it very pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of flaws with it, some impossible to overcome given the circumstances, but on the whole it was about as much as I could have expected from a fantasy film of this nature.

I don’t want to get into the plot because it’s not really that important in the scheme of things, but I guess it should come as no surprise that there are humans, orcs, elves, dwarves and so forth -– but mainly humans and orcs –- who all all live in a magical realm with mythical creatures, magic powers, evil warlocks, master wizards and apprentice mages. It’s about fighting for your people and your tribe, honour and loyalty, family and friends and all that shit. It’s more less your typical RPG game.

Now, if you can get past the first stage, which is to take this kind of video-gamey premise seriously, then the rest of the film has a decent chance. Mind you, this does not have the gritty realism of something like say Game of Thrones — this is legitimate high fantasy, where you can actually see the light shooting out of magicians hands and souls being literally sucked out of bodies. 

When you take into account just what a difficult task this was for director Duncan Jones to get right, you start to appreciate the great job he did with this movie. While the storyline is indeed cliched, the storytelling is, for the most part, well done. Instead of making the orcs just brainless monsters hell bent on killing humans for no reason, Jones makes proper characters with proper character development. It’s not quite a two-sides-to-the-story kind of scenario, where the humans characters and orc characters are genuinely on an equal footing (hint: the humans still get more love), it’s at least good to see them apply a less conventional approach.

The cast is also really solid. On the human size, you’ve got Aussie Travis Fimmel, Dominic Cooper and Ben Foster, while on the orc side there’s Toby Kebbel (he will always be Koba to me) and Daniel Wu (I was shocked when I discovered he’s in it), and in between there’s Paula Patton, looking a little on the green side. None of these names are A-listers, but they’re all quality performers who bring gravitas to their respective roles. 

As for the action, it’s of course predominantly CGI, and to be honest it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before in terms of scale, creativity or choreography. What it does do well is the depiction of magic, which is rarely done well on film, and building up some character relationships so that we will care about the outcome of the battles and duels.

So absolutely, Jones should be commended for doing everything he could to make Warcraft the “great” film he tried to make. If you manage to immerse yourself in the story (like my wife, who said she really enjoyed it), you’ll likely think the film is a success. For me, on the other hand, there were elements I liked and places where I thought the film did a great job with, but I couldn’t get into the story or care for the characters as much as like I hoped I would. It really comes down to it being virtually impossible to introduce a whole new realm with all these different races and conflicts, not to mention focusing on both sides of the war, in a movie barely over 2 hours long. If this were a TV series where you have 10 hours to play with, then maybe you could achieve all these things. But given the time constraints and the need to devote a good chunk of that time to battle scenes, you’re going to have scenes and dialogue of obvious and annoying exposition cramming. 

Could they have reduced the number of characters and shifted the balance from CGI battles to more character and relationship development? Of course they could have. But as a one-shot opportunity to make a successful blockbuster for which sequels are no certainty, it would have been too risky an approach for any studio to take. It’s easy for critics to dismiss the cliched aspects of the movie, but sometimes commercial realities dictate these things.

The same goes for the CGI, which was limited by the technology and budget. As a result, it was a little patchy — photorealistic at times and like an Xbox cutscene at others. Perhaps part of it is also the way the orcs have been designed — they just don’t look like creatures I could genuinely believe, a feeling that is heightened whenever I see Paula Patton’s half-orc, half-human character, who looks basically like a human in green paint with two little tusks coming out the bottom of her mouth. It’s ridiculous.

Despite all these flaws, I still appreciate and admire the film Warcraft had set out to be. It’s not quite the “great” film Jones had dreamed of or the saviour of all video-game adaptation movies (that baton has now been passed on to Assbender in Assassin’s Creed), but as a high fantasy film with all the hard-to-swallow things that come with it, Warcraft is not bad at all. If you see it with an open mind, you might agree too.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Stand By Me Doraemon (2014)

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Doraemon was probably the first manga and anime I was exposed to as a child, so it made sense for me to choose Stand By Me Doraemon — the first 3D computer animated Doraemon feature — as my three-year-old son’s first cinematic experience.

It’s a good choice, because unlike other Doraemon feature films that depict standalone adventures, Stand By Me Doraemon is an origins story that takes us right back to the beginning and features some of Doraemon’s best known gadgets. While there are original elements, many of the subplots, including the ending, are borrowed directly from the manga/anime, though due to time constraints some classic chapters were condensed into montages.

For those who don’t already know the story, it’s about a loser kid named Nobita who is in the very bottom percentile in terms of both intellectual and athletic ability. To change his fortunes, Nobita’s great-great-great-grandson from the 22nd century sends him Doraemon, a lovable robot cat with a pocket full of handy futuristic gadgets. With Doraemon’s help, Nobita sets out to alter his future and win the affections of Shizuka, the perfect girl-next-door, while also fending off his friends, the bully Gian and the show-off Suneo.

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It’s a good-looking movie, with smooth 3D computer animation that pays homage to the simplicity of the original anime. As such, there aren’t many eye-popping images, though old fans should be content with the faithful transition from 2D hand-drawn animation to 3D CGI.

As a cynical adult, I have a few problems with the story’s logic and its underlying messages, some of which could be construed as shallow. As a kid, however, all I cared about was how cool Doraemon’s gadgets are and how much I wish I had them, so I’m not too concerned about my son being led astray.

Ultimately, notwithstanding the complexity of all the time travelling, Stand By Me Doraemon is a story that’s easy to follow and like if you enjoy rooting for the underdog. I don’t know if it’s the nostalgia flooding back, but I was actually very moved by the movie in the end. The final message teaching kids to be independent and that having a kind heart is the best attribute of all is something even adults can appreciate.

My son loved the experience and I had a pretty good time too. We’re already counting down the days until the next Doraemon feature.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) (2D)

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I more or less knew what to expect when I decided to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies at the cinema over the weekend. Not much plot and loads and loads of battle action. Both predictions turned out to be accurate, though I must admit there was a little bit more plot than I anticipated and, amazingly, probably even more battle action than I was prepared for.

The whole film is essentially a massive, extended climax. At a relatively short 144 minutes, and with much of the running time dedicated to battle, it feels much swifter than An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. As such, it might be better to regard the film as pure popcorn entertainment and fantasy nerd eye candy as opposed to the resounding final piece of the Middle Earth puzzle. As a standalone movie, Five Armies comes across as fairly soulless in comparison to the other entries. But as a 144-minute climax to a 447-minute film — or if you include LOTR, a middle-climax to a 1005-minute film (a couple of hours longer than that if you add director’s cut versions) — it actually kinda makes sense. I suppose it all depends on your perspective.

By now you should be well aware that Five Armies deviates substantially from its source material. Of course it had to, considering there weren’t many pages left in The Hobbit by the time The Desolation of Smaug finished. This might irk Tolkien loyalists, but for me it didn’t matter. It helps that I don’t remember much of the book, which I was never that fond of since I first read it as a pre-teen, and then again at university.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t remember much from the first two films either, because Five Armies is all about the spectacle. Say what you want about the rest of the movie, but there’s no denying that Five Armies is one of the most impressive visual feasts you will ever see. While it is dominated by special effects, I never got the sense that the film was overwhelmed by CGI. The war sequences were also spectacular and rarely felt repetitive, with long group battles involving all types of creatures and lengthy one-on-one duels. That said, the “wow” factor is no longer there. It’s undeniably good, but my mind was not blown like it was when I first watched the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

The drama offered by the film obviously pales in comparison to the action, but you can still tell that Peter Jackson really tried. The humans (led by Bard the Bowman — Luke Evans) head to the Mountain for refuge after their Laketown village is ravaged by Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), while the dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield — Richard Armitage) are holed up in Mountain with their gold, refusing to share. The elves (led by Thranduil — Lee Pace) want their share of the treasure in the Mountain, and the Orcs (CGI) are looking to kill everyone and claim the Mountain for themselves (I think that’s about five armies, no?). Throw in the love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner) for some romance, a bit of comedic relief in the form of a cowardly, greedy politician’s aide (Alfrid — Ryan Gage), old regulars like Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and don’t forget the the stoic protagonist, Biblo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and you can see how there’s more than enough characters and subplots to go around. The emotional resonance may be lacking if you compare it to LOTR, but at least Jackson gave it a shot.

Martin Freeman, whom I will never see in the same light again after watching him in the Fargo TV series, feels more like a supporting character here. He does what he can in his allocated slot of screen time, though I never got the feeling that the story was truly about him. But then again, the hobbits have always felt more like observers of the action than participants. Also, Richard Armitage might be no Viggo Mortensen and Thorin Oakenshield might be no Aragon, but Armitage still makes Thorin an awesome, memorable character who offers something different to what Aragon did for LOTR.

There will be a lot of people who hate this movie, or at least deeply disappointed by it. Lovers of the book might not like the liberties Jackson took with Tolkien’s story, or how he expanded just a few pages of text into a 2.5 hour movie. But if you accept all that and watch the movie for what it set out to be — and that’s an exciting fantasy epic filled with extensive and well-executed battle sequences — then it might turn out to be pretty thrilling.  There’s dragons (well, dragon), elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, goblins, hobbits and giant eagles and bats, and they’re all killing each other. If fantasy adventure is what you want, then what more can you ask for?

I remember a time when each new installment of LOTR felt like Christmas (though that might have been because it was always released at Christmas). Hands down, it would always be my most anticipated movie of the year. With The Hobbit, on the other hand, watching each new entry felt more like an obligation. You’ve seen all of them, so you might as well keep going.

That said, it’s still hard to believe that it’s finally over. After 14 years — nearly half a lifetime for me — JRR Tolkien/Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth franchise has drawn to a close. If you consider the film part as of a six-entry series, then fair enough, it’s probably a disappointment. On the other hand, if you think of LOTR and The Hobbit as two separate trilogies, then you might find it as enjoyable as I did, for Five Armies is clearly the best of the three films (though not on the same level as any of the LOTR flicks). Either way, it’s both sad and a relief to see this magnificent world come to an end. Unlike Star Wars, there’s no more cash to milk from this cow, and that’s a good thing.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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They’re the world’s most fierce fighting team. They’re heroes in a half-shell and they’re green.

That’s right, I still remember the song words. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as encapsulated by the 1987 cartoon series, will always have a soft spot in my heart. I’d watch it every morning before schoo. I collected all the toy figurines, and distinctively recall lining up outside the department store and rushing in as soon as it opened to get the latest additions. I had Ninja Turtles stationery, I played Ninja Turtles video games, and I even bought a whole bunch of crap just so I could collect these stupid complimentary Ninja Turtles coins. Those were the days, and Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo were the shit.

And so I’m not ashamed to say that I was kinda looking forward to the new live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, even though I have not followed the franchise for a couple of decades and did not watch the new cartoon series nor the 2007 computer animated feature film. And dammit, even if Michael Bay was involved and Megan fox plays April O’Neil, I was still determined to see it.

If I could sum up the film in one word, it would be: underwhelming. I don’t think it is as bad as some critics have made it out to be (must be the automatic bias from knowing that Michael Bay produced it), but everything about it is too “by the book.” From the plot to the action to the humor, there is absolutely nothing to get excited about. Director Jonathan Liebesman, who doesn’t have a terrible track record with a CV that includes Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans, treads too lightly to make waves. As a result, the film is cookie-cutter. It’s pure vanilla. If not for the CGI, motion-capture turtles, the film doesn’t add much, if anything, to the legacy of the franchise.

The story could not be more conventional, even by Hollywood standards. It’s an origins story, so you’ll get the whole spiel about how the turtles mutated and were turned into martial arts experts by a mutant rat named Splinter. There’s the evil Shredder, there’s his Foot Clan, and there’s the reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and her cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett). They made a few minor tweaks around the edges of the script and added the new character, Eric Sacks (William Fichtner)– whom I initially and erroneously thought was Shredder — but apart from that everything stays quite close to the cartoons I watched.

The action generally lacked creativity. With martial arts movies taking it to the next level these days, it’s disappointing to not see something with a little more flair considering that the turtles are CGI. Yeah, I know they are motion captured, but it doesn’t hurt to give them some additional enhancements. The only time the action tried anything daring was in an extended snow sequence that reminded me a lot of the river scene from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. And like that scene, this one also felt somewhat cartoonish — yes, even for a film largely based on a cartoon.

As for the turtles, while I liked the idea of CGI motion capture, I wasn’t a huge fan of the designs. I didn’t mind the Kanji characters and little bits and pieces added to their respective bodies, but they looked way too big and muscular (the original Ninja Turtles were supposed to be only about five feet tall). And they’re ugly fellas too, with the beady nostrils and menacing faces. They looked more like villains than heroes, to be honest, and the performances from the actors (Alan Ritchson, Shawn Kavanaugh, Pete Ploszek/Johnny Knoxville, and Jeremy Howard) didn’t make them any more likable. Too much cheese, not enough charm.

Fortunately, my favorite turtle, Michelangelo, looked at least semi-normal. But the glasses thing with Donatello made him look like a freak, while Rafael, who for some reason always get special attention in the movies despite being an angry, unreasonable douchebag, just looked gross.

And Splinter, strangely voiced by Tony Shalhaub of all people, was just weird. I thought the turtles generally looked realistic enough, with the exception of a couple of close-ups under bright lighting conditions, but with Splinter, he looked too CGI almost all the time and came across as more of a creep than the trusted and loving sensei of my childhood.

I’m a fan of William Fichtner and thought he would excel as the villain Schredder, whom they more or less turned into Edward Scissorhands with a helmet. I actually thought it was a nice modern adjustment to fuse the look of Schredder’s traditional samurai armour with advanced weapons technology, but unfortunately, Fichtner was not Schredder, who turned out to be some lame Japanese guy whose face you barely saw for the entire movie. Honestly, it would have been so much better had they just made Fichtner Schredder. It would have made more sense too, plot-wise. Maybe he could fulfill that destiny in the planned sequels.

The one thing the film got right was making sure the turtles, rather than the humans, were the stars of the show. Megan Fox is not someone I had pictured for the role, but she’s actually not awful here. She’s OK, and that’s good enough for a supporting actor.

The film’s biggest asset turned out to be Will Arnett, who provided all the jokes in the movie — at least the jokes that were funny anyway. and he did it by unashamedly channeling GOB Bluth from Arrested Development. Not that I am complaining, because GOB is one of the funniest TV characters of all time. AD fans will get a kick out of his performance, as well as the AD Easter eggs they put into the movie.

Perhaps I’ve become too cynical of a moviegoer after all these years, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, despite not being a complete failure, didn’t do much for me. Granted, it is better than the recent Transformers entries. It’s less loud, less obnoxious and less long (101 minutes), and for some, that’s probably enough. The 1990 film was most likely not very good either, but I loved it as a kid. Accordingly, I think it’s possible that younger viewers could enjoy the 2014 version a lot too. Sadly for me, no amount of nostalgia can make me come to the conclusion that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is anything more than average.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) (2D)

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My first impression of Jack the Giant Slayer, just from the title alone, was that it was going to suck. I had imagined it to be another lame Hollywood attempt to cash in on a popular fairy tale, in the vein of recent bombs such as Red Riding Hood, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and so forth.

But then I discovered that it stars Nicholas Hoult, probably still best known for playing the kid in About a Boy, but has since shot to fame with X-Men: First Class, Warm Bodies, and being Jennifer Lawrence’s ex-boyfriend. The rest of the cast is great too, with Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci and Ian McShane all playing key roles. Importantly, it’s directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns, Valkyrie, X-Men: First Class), whose cinematic style, visual flair and knack for action I have always appreciated.

I’m glad to say I checked it out in the end, because Jack the Giant Slayer, for all its faults, is by far the best of the recent fairy tale movies mentioned above. The film knows its limits and sticks to what can it can do best, which is loads of giant action, battle scenes, likable characters and a simple but familiar story line about a boy growing into an unlikely hero.

The story needs little explanation. In a magical land which according to legend was once ruled by giants, Jack (Hoult), a farm boy comes across some special beans. A princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) disappears and Jack joins a search team headed by King’s guard Elmont (McGregor) and adviser Lord Roderick (Tucci), the princess’s future husband. You can fill in the gaps.

The light romance and the straightforward humour in this film work because they don’t overwhelm the engaging and often clever action, the special ingredient that elevates Jack the Giant Killer above your average CGI flick. The final battle sequence, in particular, is as exciting as anything I’ve seen so far this year.

On the downside, I suppose the CGI could have been stronger, given that Singer chose to animate the giants entirely with computer graphics as opposed to “enlarging” real actors with special effects. My guess is because he wanted to make the giants less human, with long, dangly limbs, weird faces and various deformities. They looked more like beautifully rendered video game characters than “real” giants, but perhaps I’m asking for too much.

Hoult, with his lanky, boyish charisma, looks like he is ready to be a major star. While he doesn’t carry the film he is the one who keeps the film rolling. Tomlinson is a great match for him as Princess Isabelle, while McGregor and Tucci are always two guys you would welcome in any movie. Ian McShane, whom some might recognise as Blackbeard from the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, provides both laughs and stoicism in his role as King Brahmwell. As for the giants, the most memorable one is played via motion capture by two veteran stars — Bill Nighy and John Kassir (the Crypt Keeper from Tales From the Crypt!!!).

To sum things up, Jack the Giant Slayer is an enjoyable popcorn movie that should appeal to kids and adults who just want a bit of escapist fun for a couple of hours. It’s not special and certainly not memorable, but considering how badly it could have gone I’d call it both a formulaic success and a pleasant surprise.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I have to admit that I only knew there was the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk and had no idea that there was also a closely related one called Jack the Giant Killer. Jack the Giant Slayer is loosely based on a combination of both.

Movie Review: Tron: Legacy (2010)

Tron: Legacy was one 3D movie that I actually wanted to see (and was not too torn about forking out the extra cash to see it).

I’m too young to have seen the original Tron (except maybe on video, though I can’t remember it), but I have older friends who keep raving on about it and say that it’s a timeless classic.  Made in 1982, Tron featured special effects that were revolutionary for its time, and it’s fascinating to see just how far CGI has improved over the last 28 years.

I can’t say the trailer instilled much confidence in the film itself, but I was willing to give it a shot.  It seemed like one of those movies where the visuals were going to be impressive but the story was going to suck.

As it turned out, the visuals were even more incredible than I could have hoped for, and the story probably sucked a little more than I had expected.  Nevertheless, I was satisfied with the overall result — style over substance, for sure, but still a dazzling and (for the most part) exciting spectacle that’s different to anything I’ve seen before.

The film begins in 1989, several years after the first film, where Kevin Flynn (a young Jeff Bridges) is telling his young son Sam about the virtual world he created in Tron.  Twenty years later, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is all grown up and through a series of discoveries finds himself transported to that very world.

And it’s a very very cool world, full of neon lights, flying discs, and amazing bikes (‘Light Cycles’) and planes (Light Jets).  A gamer’s wet dream.

Interestingly, even though Tron:Legacy is only released in 3D, the parts of the film set in the ‘real world’ are intentionally shot in 2D so as to contrast the awesomeness of the virtual world.  You will be hard pressed to find a more vocal critic of 3D films than me, but I didn’t mind it so much here.  At least it was a clever idea, and at least it enhanced the special effects.

Speaking of special effects, Tron: Legacy may not have been as revolutionary as its predecessor, but it was still a visual feast that made my eyeballs dance in awe.  However, the young version of Jeff Bridges didn’t feel quite right to me — perhaps it was his Beowulf-like eyeballs or the way his mouth moved, but it felt less authentic than the de-ageing technology I saw in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button from two years ago.

As for the story…well…after a cracker of a start, as soon as the action died down it became rather boring and muddled.  A lot of techno talk that didn’t make much sense to me, and still doesn’t.  Not that it mattered.

3.5 stars out of 5