Saturday, June 11, 2016

Movie Review: "Warcraft"

Whether you're all "For the Alliance!" or more "For the Horde" or even "For Anyone Except The Burning Legion," chances are if you've heard of Garona or know what the Doomhammer is, you have seen or are planning to see "Warcraft," the new movie from Duncan Jones (son of the late David Bowie) and crew, out in U.S. theaters this week. It's been ten years since the movie was announced, and after director changes and polishing the script various other delays, we finally get to see if the long-awaited movie, the making of which was truly a monumental task with massive stakes, lived up to the hype.


I, of course, was at the first possible showing in my hometown, along with my sister. Like millions of others, I had been waiting with great anticipation for a movie treatment of the world which I have grown to love and enjoy to a great degree (for more on my history with the Warcraft world, see here and here and here).

I will not include any spoilers in case there are those reading this who haven't seen it yet.

The basic plot: the Orcs are in need of a new home after fel magic (translation: bad juju) has all but rendered their homeworld of Draenor uninhabitable. The leader of the Orc's Horde, Gul'dan, has created a portal to Azeroth, a fertile world which offers a future for the Orcs. Some Orcs, like the Frostwolf clan led by Durotan, are skeptical of Gul'dan, but follow because they have little choice. On Azeroth, the humans of Stormwind, led by King Llane and army leader Anduin Lothar, struggle to defend the kingdom against the sudden onslaught of the Horde. They seek help from the mysterious and magical Guardian Medivh, as well as a young but already-skilled mage named Khadgar. Bridging the two sides is Garona, a half-orc captured by the humans who tries to earn their trust. The humans find a possible way to avoid the inevitable war when Durotan offers an alliance against the evil Gul'dan. And we know he's evil, because his eyes are green, and that's never good. Kind of like being able to speak to snakes.

Since the first teasers and trailers were released last year, I was filled with both excitement and trepidation; the film truly looked to be epic, but there are always big shows to fill once trailers create expectations, so I was worried. I just knew it wouldn't be on the same level as "The Lord of the Rings" movies, but then, what could possibly be? I just hoped it would do Azeroth justice, and make the millions of Warcraft fans out there happy.

Long story short - it did, and it will.

It was not a perfect movie, not a paragon of cinematic achievement. There are flaws, and things which if improved could have launched Warcraft but there was plenty in it to enjoy and love and geek out over. I'll start with the good, and then go to my criticisms.

The Good

The Orcs - one review I watched pointed out that the tension in Lord of the Rings can be summed up as "humans and elves and hobbits and dwarves = good, orcs = bad." The reviewer isn't wrong, which is what makes the Orcs in "Warcraft" so incredibly refreshing. I actually cared about the Orcs more than the humans, for the most part. The way they were written, their plot, their conflict - all of it had me more engaged in their half of the story than the human half. The main Orcs, good and bad - Durotan, Orgrim, Draka, Gul'dan, Blackhand - were all very compelling and had me caring about what happened to them. The humans, not quite as much.


The visual effects - the effects for this movie are spectacular and beautiful in just about every way. The motion capture CGI for the Orcs and other non-humans looks as good as Gollum from LotR, and that is saying a LOT. Stormwind, Ironforge, Draenor, and other places are gorgeously rendered and epic to see, and the effects used when Khadgar and Medivh and Gul'dan weave their magic is just stunning.  The folks at Industrial Light and Magic nailed just about everything to make Warcraft a true visual feast. Also, apparently the 3D is lame, so don't spend the extra dollars for that if you can avoid it.

The music - The soundtrack was exactly what it needed to be: pulse-pounding at the right moments, sweeping when the scene called for it. I'd never heard of Ramin Djawadi before, but I'll be watching him closely in the future. I will say, I had hoped there would be more inclusion of musical themes from the Warcraft game soundtracks woven in. There are a few, but could have been more.

The connections - I could go on and on about this for a while, so let me be brief by saying there are so many things in the movie which will make fans of the Warcraft games and lore very smiley. From seeing very realistic versions of the places they've spent so much time in - Stormwind, Ironforge, Elwynn Forest, Karazhan, and more - to glimpses of characters very well-known in the canon (again, no spoilers) to subtle nods to fans like the spells the mages cast or the weapons the heroes carry. The details, too, are just amazing - each Orc has his or her own distinctive style and ornamentation and design, and the armor/weapons of the humans are stunning.

If the in-game Stormwind is generic-brand ice cream, movie Stormwind is
Ben and Freaking Jerry's
Go here for more fun comparisons between in-game locations and movie versions of those locations.

The Bad

It's choppy - There were times in the movie where something felt abrupt or a little out of place. There's one scene, in particular, involving Medivh and Garona, after which I felt rather "huh?" There is a lot of material from which the writers I've never shied away from saying I wish some movies were longer, even if they're already super long. Warcraft is two hours, about standard for big-screen movies, but that's after 30-40 minutes worth of material was cut. I don't know what was in that material, but I wonder if it would have smoothed out some of the rougher transitions and abruptness.
Some of the characters are too 2D - Maybe the extra material could have helped make some of the characters more interesting or relatable. I imagine my long familiarity with the characters of Warcraft may be partially to blame here, but I just got to watch some of the most iconic characters in the whole of Azerothian lore, and if you were to ask whether I truly cared about what happened to some of them, I'd probably respond with "meh." That's especially true with King Llane and Medivh (though I was very pleasantly surprised at Ben Foster's interpretation of the Guardian). Granted, I *know* what happens to pretty much all of the characters in the movie, and even when it happened, my brain reacted more with a "so that's how they chose to portray that" and less of a "ZOMG I KNEW THAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN AND IT WAS AS INCREDIBLE AS I HOPED." I know that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I'm already emotionally invested in a lot of these folks, but that investment didn't really manifest itself as much as I felt it should for the movie.


It's a little esoteric - it's easy for a long-time Warcraft fan, or even a short-time Warcraft fan, to enjoy the movie. I'm not so sure it would be as easy for someone not as steeped in the lore or world to enjoy it as much. I am confident a novice could watch it and enjoy it for what it is and not be totally lost, but (and mostly due to the other downsides above), but I wonder if many wouldn't be able to get past the flaws and enjoy it in the way a Warcraft nerd like me could. It feels like a movie made by Warcraft fans for Warcraft fans, and I appreciate that and loved the movie...as a Warcraft fan.  I imagine a lot of the negative reviews of the movie are from "Warcraft outsiders," and I can imagine why that could be. But it would be better if non-fans could enjoy it to an almost equal degree (truly equal may be impossible). It's very possible to bridge that gap - look at Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the new Star Treks; all are loved by most of those franchises' long-time fans, as well as by people who knew nada before watching them.

One thought on the departures from in-game lore - there were parts of the Warcraft movie story which were different, in subtle or dramatic ways, than the in-game and long-established canon. Some of them I really liked, and others I only kind-of liked, and others I didn't really like. What I choose to believe is making this movie from the Warcraft games is like making Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter from the books - it's impossible to make it as faithful as many might hope, because sometimes the stuff on the pages doesn't translate as well to a screen, so you have to make adjustments and changes. I also doubt the makers are planning to try and cover all the Warcraft lore in movie-form - it's an impossible task, so instead maybe they're taking a similar approach as the makers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or recent Star Trek movies- rather than try to tell all the story, they are crafting their own just creating their own little version of part of the story. If that's the case, I'm on board.


If you're still here reading this, know that I had an utter blast watching this movie - I loved being taken to an Azeroth that felt very familiar, very alive, very vibrant, and very tangible. I loved meeting some of my favorite Warcraft characters, good and evil, in a way I'd never encountered them before. I loved seeing the magic and the creatures and the places with which I'd become so familiar over a long period of time. I have so much hope and optimism for what Duncan Jones and his alliance of movie-making hordes can and will hopefully do in the years to come.

Friday, March 4, 2016

About Moving Up in the World

When I got up for work, I deleted the alarms I had set to go off every Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to wake me up for work. When I wake up for work on Monday, it will be with the sun already up, an experience I really haven't had in about seven and a half years.*

Parting, in this case, is just sweet. No sorrow.

In that time, I worked while Tamara slept, and I slept while she worked. That won't happen anymore. On Monday, I move from producing the morning newscast at ABC 17 News to managing the digital efforts at ABC 17 News.

This is a big thing, apparently, although it doesn't really feel like it at the moment, and I'm not sure why. Since I graduated college in 2007, I've really only produced morning newscasts. There was a brief stint in 2008 where I was the assignment editor at ABC 17, but that didn't work out, and I was quickly on mornings again. Since then, every day, it's been morning news.

I wake up, I get to work, I see what they had the night before I can use, I see what's happened in the world since the previous 10 p.m. news ended, I see what's happening around the world at the moment, and I somehow cobble all that together into a two-hour news show by 5 a.m. every morning.

It is not - it could never be - a solo effort. I don't write this with any intention of thinking I have been successful at my job by my own efforts alone. Not a chance. From Michelle Linn and Ryan Snyder and Jeff Huffman to Lauren Gores and Neville Miller and Kevin Vauble to Kristie Reeter and Justin Abraham and Kevin Vauble to Ashley Strohmier and Brittany Beggs and Kevin Vauble - these are the co-pilots who made this show fly every single morning. Sometimes the flight was bumpy. Occasionally there's be a hard landing. More often than not, it was smooth sailing. And I learned, and grew, and was stretched, and was polished, and I am better for it.

So why change? Why get away from something so familiar and comfortable and ingrained? As Gail Sheehy said, "If we don't change, we don't grow. If we don't grow, we aren't really living." I'd be lying if I said that was the main impetus behind my moving on, but regardless, it's true. I'm ready to do something else, learn something else, get good at something else (I hope).

And I'm ready to re-learn what daylight looks like. I may have to get the industrial-sized bottle of sunscreen from Sam's, but that's what I get for being a night owl more than 8 years.

I get the feeling I won't really know how different my life will be until I'm well into the deep end, until I've jumped off the high dive, until I've gotten my feet wet.**

What I already know I'll miss:

- My coworkers, especially Kevin, with whom I've worked just about every morning for more than five of my years on the AM newscast
- Having the newsroom to myself for two hours every morning
- Less-to-no workplace drama in my life
- Getting the bed all to myself for most of my sleep (and I know Tamara feels the same)
- Being able to have dinner ready for Tamara when she gets home
- Having a large part of Friday free to do whatever I want

Just a few of the irreplaceable I'll miss working with
What I already know I won't miss:

- Having to set at least two alarms to make sure I'm up for work
- Hoping my inconsistent sleep schedule is consistent enough to get my body the rest it needs
- Calling reporters in the middle of the night, before they were expecting to rouse from their much-needed sleep, because there might be a fire or police chase somewhere
- Missing out on work-related food because it's all gone or has been left out for HOURS before I get in
- Napping on Sundays because I have to, not because I want to

I will admit - a part of me is scared to death. What I'm to do from now on is not only more work, but more responsibility, requires more organization, more proactive-ness, more initiative, and more leadership. Some of those - I'm not so good at, I fear. Can I better myself in those areas? Of course. But it's that whole inertia thing - hard to get going until I've gotten going, you know?

Anyway, that's my little brain-yark session for now. Life's going to be different starting on Monday. I have a feeling it's going to be the good kind of different, even if it takes a bit to start feeling this way.


*I did fill in during the daytime for one week a couple of years back. And of course I'm not referring to weekends, only workdays.

**What is it about swimming that makes it so metaphor-able?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Russia Studies: A Post Mortem

Tonight I will walk across a stage and receive what looks like a diploma, but is actually just a cover (the diploma comes later this summer, once the powers that be have verified I'm worthy of its receipt).

My diploma will say something about my having earned a Master of Arts in Russian and Slavonic Studies, which is just a fancy way of saying I read a lot of stuff written by long-dead Russians, and wrote a lot of stuff about the stuff I read.

Lev Tolstoy

When I started the process of going back to school, I was in a somewhat unhappy place at work. I really wasn't sure news was something I wanted to do for much longer, much less for the rest of my life. So I thought about what else I could do that I might like, and the idea of "something that uses my knowledge of Russian" appeared. That led to ideas about working for the State Department or CIA or NSA or FBI or some other entity that deals with our not-allies, the Russians (I had no desire to do field work, though I liked the idea of a posting overseas).

Lucky for me, the University of Missouri-Columbia has a master's program for Russian. Lucky for me, I got a teaching assistant position, meaning most of my schooling would be paid for. Lucky for me, I know one of the professors in the department really well, so I had an "in" and an ally.

Nikolai Gogol

Unlucky for me, the program has little in the way of coursework focused on the Russian language, which is what I wanted to sharpen in preparation for new career possibilities. The closest thing was one class on Old Church Slavonic, which is precursor to modern Russian.

But it was a master's degree, it was mostly free, I would be able to stay in Columbia and I would be able to keep working full-time. So all in all, it was a heck of a good deal.

Three years later, I'm done. I've taken my last exam, written my last paper, attended my last lecture. What did I learn? A lot. A LOT. What did I enjoy? A lot. What did I not enjoy? A lot. There was more of what I enjoyed than what I didn't.

I learned I really like the poetry of Alexander Pushkin, the writings of Anton Chekhov, the goofiness of Nikolai Gogol and the prose of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
I learned I really don't like the Russian Modernists (Symbolists, Acmeists, Futurists), nor the Formalists, but I do like the Russian Romantics and Realists.

I learned how to versify, what an aorist is, the skill of close reading, the genesis of the Russian dramatic tradition, and that a strong knowledge of the Bible makes a world of difference in an Old Church Slavonic class (many of the translation exercises were excerpts from the Bible - as soon as I identified the excerpt, translating was easy).

By virtue of being a teaching assistant in a Russian Civilization class (twice), I have a much better grasp on Russian history than I would even get by reading Wikipedia.

Boris and Gleb, two early Russian saints
The thing is, now that I'm done with my program, I'm probably not going to use it. Not right away, at least. Another opportunity for the future has presented itself (more on that later), one which I'm going to explore over the next year or so. No State Department, no CIA, no NSA or FBI or KGB or GRU or FSB.

What, then? Did I waste my time? Could I have done something else? Do I regret the three years of stress and anxiety and agony and occasional boredom and frequent confusion? Нет, as the good русские say. I have a master's degree, it cost me very little in terms of money, and in general required little sacrifice outside of time.

More importantly, though, I gained a much deeper appreciation for a very important part of the culture of a country I love dearly. I got to know the Russian life while living there, but this program has allowed me to get to know Russia on an entirely new level, through the eyes of its most famous and skilled writers. Yeah, some of it was boring and some of it was confusing and some of it was just straight weirdness (I'm looking at you, Andrei Bely, IF that is your real name (it's not)).

Andrei Bely (born Boris Bugaev)

But so much more of it was entertaining and beautiful and meaningful in some way. I feel like I can see and think about Russia at a depth never available to me during my time as a missionary there. I can talk about the literary greats from the legendary Russian Empire, which include some of the greatest literary greats that ever great-ed.

So no, I don't regret one bit of the last three years, disconnected though it may end up being from my professional future. I'm thankful for it, for the friends I made, for the associations I had with other students and professors, and for the knowledge I now have stashed in my brain for some future trivia night.

Maybe Pushkin will win me Jeopardy one day.

Alexander Pushkin

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Little (What do You Call a "Ditty" if it's in Writing?)

This is pretty dorky, but it's my blog and I'll post whatever I dang well please.

Yesterday Blizzard Watch, the successor to WoW Insider (long story short, the writers at WoW Insider made their own blog paid for by crowdfunding; see my tribute post to the old site here), posted a contest to win a free messenger bag. To enter, you have to leave a comment in the form of a little story telling about a man who gives you a bag with mystery contents and asks you to deliver it somewhere. The comment has to say what he asks you to deliver and where.

So I, always up for a free bag, made my entry, which you can read below. Again, it's WoW-themed, so some of the proper nouns may be unfamiliar. But I was rather proud of my little (what do you call a "ditty" if it's in writing?), and I'm posting it here:

***

"I need you to take this to the Tower of Azora," the man growled at me, staring with his one good eye, the drool cascading through the massive gaps in his teeth. "It absolutely must get there, and you must only give it to Theocritus. He MUST have it by nightfall!"

I snort in incredulity. "Tower of Azora, huh? Isn't that in Elwynn Forest? Near Stormwind? On the continent called Azeroth? ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD?!?"

He didn't answer, but started convulsing in what I realized after a minute was a low rumble of laughter. I shivered as a cold wind blew from the Stonetalon Mountains blew across us - the man sitting in front of me didn't seem to notice.

"Um, maybe you didn't hear me, but that's literally on the other side of an entire world. And I'm not sure I could get there very easily - I'm an orc. They generally aren't too welcome, you know, RIGHT NEXT TO STORMWIND."

By now the man's chuckle had turned into a rollicking guffaw. I turned away in disgust, about to leave this oddity behind me forever, when I realized I still had the smelly leather bag with whatever was so important in my hand. I turned back, and was stunned to see he wasn't there. I blinked hard in disbelief, for I could still hear his laughter.

Then I realized he was trying to hide behind a rock.

A rock the size of a small turtle. I hit my face with my palm, then tossed the bag at his head, narrowly missing. As it hit the ground it fell open, and from inside rolled an egg.

It was a goose egg.

A stupid, boring, now-half-cracked goose egg!

This is why I don't stop to talk to people anymore.

***

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Daredevil's Advocate: A Review

There are superheroes, and there are superheroes.

The first kind are what will be flying and zooming and zipping around the movie screen in front of which I'll be sitting this weekend, smiling giddily whilst shoveling popcorn into my face: Iron Man and Thor and Hulk and Black Widow and Captain America and all those guys.

The second kind are what you saw with Christopher Nolan's Batman and Joker and Scarecrow and Bane, and now, Netflix's Daredevil.

"Watch my show. I...

...dare you."

YEEAAAAAHHHH!!!!

Movies with the first kind of superheroes dazzle you with special effects; they wow you with incredible displays of super-heroic powers like arc-reactor-powered blasters and magic hammers and big green muscles; they captivate you with earth-shattering battles between mighty heroes and epic foes. Marvel has shown that it can do these kind of movies with not just crowd-pleasing, but critic-pleasing results. They're able to combine the big effects and huge-name actors with humanizing humor and endearing moments of emotion, so that they rake in not just massive piles of dollars, but accolades to match.

Movies with the second kind daze you with their grit; they rouse you with their humanness and emotion; they make you flinch with their visceral realness. Nolan set the bar incredibly high with his Dark Knight trilogy, which shed the cartoonish and kitschy style of the previous Batman movies for something bolder, dirtier, rougher, realer. His Batman and his villains were heroes and nightmares one could believe might actually exist somewhere in the world.

"Mr. Murdock, based on your labs I can confirm that you look better without a shirt."

With "Daredevil," its Netflix-original debut, Marvel has shown that it can find the right people to bring the same level of superhero entertainment to the table that Nolan did. It has the same grit, the same roughness, the same level of gut-wrenching feeling that brings you into it in a way your mind could never accomplish with Mighty Thor or Incredible Hulk.

For the uninitiated, Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil, is a blind lawyer by day, helping those who can't help themselves with their legal problems. By night, Daredevil fights for those who can't help themselves against the darkness around them - he's blind, but his other senses are so enhanced as to allow him to be able to "see" his surroundings and fight/defend/move accordingly. The result is a ninja-quality fighter who battles by instinct, by sense, by feel.

Daredevil prepares for his drum solo. On a bad guy's face.

Netflix's show is, like many initial superhero movies, a kind of origin story. It focuses, however, not on how he got/honed his powers, but how he begins and learns to use them to help his city against criminal forces much larger than he is. From episode one, Daredevil already kicks butt in a major way. He wins most of the time, but he also loses, and it's in his losing that the character begins to really develop. It helps to have someone who can embody the emotions involved in something like this, and Charlie Cox brings what Ben Affleck never could at that stage in his acting career.

With each loss, and with even some of his victories, he questions what he's doing, both in his approach and in his motivation. He feels what he's doing is right, but he knows he's on the edge of going too far, of becoming the kind of monster he's trying to fight. This conflict is voiced by his friends and characters he meets along the way, who are worried not only about his physical safety, but his emotional and even spiritual safety. One of my favorite lines, spoken by a priest in the show, pinpoints this inner conflict (paraphrase): "What worries you more: that you don't want to kill this man, but may have to? Or that you don't have to kill him, but want to?"

The Matt/priest dialogues are some of the best moments in the show.
"This man" refers to the villain, Wilson Fisk, played to perfection by Vincent D'Onofrio. His "Kingpin" character, though never referred to by that name, is brutal and raw and emotional and vulnerable and scared and fearless and weak and powerful, all in one massive frame. Seriously, the guy deserves a blog on his own.*

I will warn you - it's gritty and rough and more violent than Marvel's movies. The punches and kicks feel real - the fear and anger do, too. I don't defend the amount of violence in the show, which would more than earn it a PG-13 rating for a movie. But - and this is to Marvel's credit - none of the violence, as hard as it is to watch, feels gratuitous, put in just to have another action sequence or to elicit cheers. There's a hesitance you can feel with every punch Daredevil throws, even as he faces those who most would deem worthy of a comeuppance most severe.

There are no words for how awesome a villain D'Onofrio's Fisk is.
Daredevil has everything other recent Marvel entries had that made them instant hits: great story, perfectly-timed humor, powerful talent, and real emotion. I'm only now realizing that the TV miniseries format is perfect for comic book adaptations, which already have far more storylines than could ever hope to be realized on a screen. It may not be the vehicle for every Marvel character, but  with the right characters and the right creative minds, it's one that can work.

It did with Daredevil, at least.

*I just had a thought about Fisk's character development and that of another famous villain. Look for something on this later.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Day the Law Library Got a Little Less Funny

Today is a special one, but not to as many people as it probably should be.

Today is the day my dad, Steve Lambson, hangs up the law librarian hat he's worn for so long, so the he can don the cap of a well-earned retirement.

Wonder no more about whence my good looks came. Okay, from Mom, too.

I admit, I can't honestly say how many years, exactly, Dad has worked at the University of Missouri Law School. I know he started there sometime in the late 1980's or early 1990's, so it's been around 25 years. That means, essentially, at least one of his kids has never known life during which Dad has not been in Hulston Hall (or Tate Hall before that).

What I can say, exactly, is that I hope he is able to someday understand just what an impact he's made there, for hundreds of students and colleagues and other people needing the help of someone with more legal expertise than they have.

What I can say, exactly, is how thankful I am that Dad has gone to work day in, day out, riding his bike in rain and wind and cold and hot, always with a smile on his face and a "ready to help with whatever someone needs" attitude.

His office was always like an "I Spy" of trinkets
and treasures and mementos.

What I can say, exactly, is how proud I am to have a Dad who has dedicated the last few decades working to provide whatever he can for the big family waiting at home for him. Yeah, that sometimes meant taking a job as a night custodian or picking up paper routes to do as a family, just to earn whatever income we can to help ourselves along.

Rolling newspapers - it conjures a groaning kind of nostalgia in our family.

What I can say, exactly, is that there are people out there, uncounted masses whose days were made better because Dad was there, in his office or at the reference desk, ready to teach or instruct or guide or smile or tell a goofy joke.

What I can say, exactly, is that there is no one I know who has earned the right to sleep in a little longer (though I know he probably won't most days, and I love that about him). There is no one I know who has put as much of himself into a job, or found as much joy in a job as Dad has. People hear law school, and they think "big time lawyer." Maybe they hear "law librarian" and wonder "what is that?" But I know, and I love, and I'm proud of the fact that Dad grew to love what he did.


There's that whole "do something you love and you'll never work a day in your life" bit. I don't know if that's true, but I do know Dad loved what he did, no matter the amount of work it took, because he loves the law, he loves teaching and helping people, and he loves his family enough to do whatever it takes to give us what we need.

Dad, I'm proud of you, I love you, and I hope you get as much enjoyment out of retirement as you did out of working at the law library. Hulston Hall will be an emptier place without the great character, love and humor you brought to it for so many years.

Lucky for us, maybe that means we get even more of that stuff at home.

You can see where I get it from.

Sure love ya !