The Buzz: Video Game Movies and Musicals
Welcome back to another edition of The Buzz. This week we are going to look at two subjects with very different track records. We are going to review the newest video game to movie adaptation, a genre of films that is spotty when it comes to quality. And then, like the rest of the world, we are going to obsess over a genius actor, composer and rapper who seem to only have success and destined for more. From there we will also look back to a movie about video games that was ahead of its time and see a preview for a Disney film that will have its first Pacific Islander Princess.
Film: Warcraft: The history of video game adaptations into film has been a long and sluggish one filled with flops and critical disasters. It does not bode well when the best video game adaptation is a flaccid battle between Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat. But it is hard not to see why it seems so tempting for the major Hollywood Studios to capitalize on the popularity of video games and make them into Summer blockbusters. Like every other source material property, these video games have brand recognition, devoted fans and even better, a story that could be aped into a two-hour feature. Yet, no video game adaptation has even been able to capture the popularity of its original source material nor gain any critical traction.
Warcraft, in all its earnestness, tries its hardest to reverse that trend of video game adaptations. It is directed by Duncan Jones, an up-and-coming filmmaker whose first two films, Moon and Source Code, takes high genre film story structures and turns it into two of the better science fiction films of the last decade. The studio Legendary has built a brand on fully embracing nerd culture and allowing its filmmakers to carry out their singular visions. That is why Godzilla was as successful as it was and Guillermo Del Toro is able to make a film like Crimson Peak. Yet, it is exactly because of all the good qualities going into Warcraft that none of it works as a feature film.
Warcraft is based on the enormously popular video game series by Blizzard Entertainment, whose fantasy mythos has created a cult following and spin-offs from novels to comic books. The film takes the central conceit of the video games in which a portal allows a group of orcs, a giant green like group with tusks protruding from their lower jaw, to escape their dying planet into Azeroth in which they threaten the humanity that is already inhabiting that world.
As a novice to any of the Warcraft mythos, all the thing plotting of the film is hidden under a heavy layer of fantasy gobbledygook of wizarding and trolls and flying eagle horses. It’s a plot that as film critic I am obliged to summarize in detail with character names and who played them but as someone concerned with his own health and mental well-being refuses to do so. That’s because nothing about the story is compelling enough to work your way through all the exposition of what is essentially an origin story.
Warcraft breaks the essential rules of what made the video game so fun and popular. The game openly pays homages to past fantasy stories of Tolkien and more and allows the player to explore it at their own deliberate pace. The story plotting does not matter. It is only a catalyst to allow the world building and exploration to begin. The books and comic books were all supplemental tools to help expand the world for those who seek it. The film is restrained in its medium to allow that same pleasure to unfold.
Duncan Jones is too good of a filmmaker and seems like too much of a fan of the source material to really make Warcraft for what it should be; fun. This is a movie with CGI orcs, knights with actors buried in fake facial hair and wizards played by Ben Foster (which automatically means he has a dark ulterior motive). Yet, the approach to all those inherently silly ideas and characters were sincere to the point that there was no joy to the film. It is not even bad enough to turn around into being something enjoyable in the way Super Mario Brothers or Mortal Kombat was.
The film’s ending suggest a sequel is planned. The film’s outstanding foreign box office receipts similarly suggests that a sequel is going to occur. But, there is potential for something more to come out of this world that is rich with characters, locations and set pieces. Just, embrace the fun of it all.
Rewind: eXistenZ: While there has been no direct video game adaptation into a film that been worth a damn, there has been plenty of films that is about video game culture that have been really good. Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is probably the best film engaged in the emotional reality that video games can create. King of Kong is a great documentary about the obsessive personalities that video games attract. But, in 1999, David Cronenberg released a strange film, eXistenZ, about the way video games have altered the line between reality and fiction for the gamer. Starring Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh, this film features all the shocking body horror that has been associated with Cronenberg while also offering his signature social distortion of where culture was headed. While Scanners and Videodrome predicted the rise of reality television, the underappreciated eXistenZ was able to predict the immersion of people into a virtual world (now the internet). This is a strange film that did not find its audience when it was first released but has slowly been gaining more of a cult following through the years.
eXistenZ is available to rent on all platforms and can be found on home video.
In the Loop: Last Sunday was the 70th annual Tony Awards, the yearly award show that celebrates the best of Broadway. Bolstered by the popularity of the sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and the host James Corden of the Late Late Show, this broadcast for CBS was able to garner its highest overnight rating in 15 years.
Speaking of Hamilton, the show unsurprisingly swept most of the major awards winning 11 out of its record breaking 16 nominations. It did not break the records for most wins however, as that is still held by The Producers which won 12 in 2002.
Because of the surge in popularity for the Hamilton writer-star, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical concoction, In the Heights, about a group of young adults over the span of three days in the Washington Heights section of New York City, has found its potential director. Jon M. Chu is now the frontrunner for the director’s chair. While he had never made a musical before, he has directed the dance film Step Up 2: The Streets and the Justin Beiber concert film, Never Say Never. You can see his latest movie in theater, Now You See Me 2. The film is being produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Weinstein Company. No release date has been set yet.
Bill Murray has been announced to be receiving this year’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a prestigious award given to one comedic performer every year by the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. The Mark Twain Prize honors the lifetime of work for those who have contributed enormously to American humor with past winners including Richard Pryor, Neil Simon and Tina Fey. Murray at the age of 65 is still has an active career in both comedic and dramatic roles. He is best known for his work on the sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live, and appearing in films such as Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. Murray has also been nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for the 2003 film, Lost in Translation.
Coming Soon: Moana: Because this week has been Lin-Manuel Miranda heavy, it was only fitting to look forward to his next project. Moana is Disney animated feature that could potentially make Miranda the youngest EGOT winner (a person who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony) due to his contribution to the film’s soundtrack. Disney Animated films have had a good track record with producing original songs that go on to win the Academy Award, last winning for Robert Lopez and Kirsten Anderson-Lopez for “Let it Go,” making them EGOT winners as well.
That’s not the only reason why Moana is something to look forward to. Starring Dwayne Johnson, this animated feature is about a young Pacific-Islander sailing with a demi-god (Johnson) to help her family. The film intends to pay tribute to the culture of the region as the filmmaker went to Tahiti, Fiji and Samoa to study the culture. More importantly, because Moana is a Princess, that makes her the first Pacific Islander, Disney Princess who is also voiced by an unknown, Auli'i Cravalho, a native Hawaiian. The film is also directed by veterans of the Disney Renaissance of the 90’s Ron Clements and John Musker, who were responsible for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog. Moana is set to be released November 23rd of this year.