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Russia's first proper foray into Tolkeinesque fantasy cinema,
WOLFHOUND, based on the first novel of a tetralogy by Maria Semyonova
about a last-of-his-tribe mighty warrior, is a mixed bag on the one
hand, it is formulaic, derivative and uneven in terms of acting and
pacing; on the other, there is enough novelty in the film's distinctly
Slavic demeanor, philosophical subtext and production design to make it
play well internationally as a crossover curio.
WOLFHOUND opens with the back-story of the main character, a mighty warrior from the Grey Hound tribe named Wolfhound (Bukharov). While still only a child, Wolfhound's family is killed by marauders led by the evil priest Zhadoba and his henchman the Man-Eater (Domogarov). Zhadoba steals a sword forged by Wolfhound's father and has Wolfhound enslaved. The boy grows up dreaming of revenge.
Zhadoba is priest of Morana, a malevolent goddess that has been imprisoned by spell cast by the rulers of Galirad, one of whom, Princess Helen (Akinshina) is betrothed to the Man-Eater's son Vinitar (Bely) in an effort to keep the peace. Zhadoba is trying to free Morana to wreak havoc upon the world and subsequently dominate. He hopes to accomplish this by spilling the blood of Helen at the ancient shrine where Morana is imprisoned. Standing between him and his goal is Wolfhound, who, after saving Helen from an assassination attempt in Galirad, becomes her bodyguard.
Contrary to many Russians' fatalistic attitudes towards life, the film presents a new and intriguing philosophical slant in terms of the free will versus determinism debate, which comes out in favor of free will. Wolfhound frees himself from slavery by killing one of his captors, thereby changing his fate. As a free man, he pursues revenge, but throughout the film, his conscience, in the form of visions of a female spirit, comes to question whether the seemingly fated cycle of killing is worth continuing when he encounters Vinitar, the last of his enemies, in battle.
If the plot sounds formulaic and derivative, it is. Intentionally or not, the opening sequence is virtually a remake of John Milius's CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Masked in a sharp-toothed skull helmet, Zhadoba is vaguely reminiscent of Tolkein's dark lord Sauron. The predictability of the storyline and the pace, which lags in places, sometimes makes you wish they'd just get on with it. In terms of editing, the film could have been better served with a classic, chronological progression of the main character's life rather than its more trendy, non-linear, flashback tack, which dampens its philosophical message.
The performances are uneven, with the supporting cast generally better than the leads. TV heartthrob Bukharov (Russian TV series MAROSEIKA 12) and internationally known Oksana Akinshina (LILJA4EVER, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY) look appropriately wide-eyed in the right places, neither of them leaves much of an impression. The purported love story between them feels pat due to being underdeveloped plot-wise. Since this is Russia's first LOTR-style fantasy and the genre is very alien to Russian cinema, some sequences feel downright awkward in terms of acting. Also a bit gawky is the very noticeable use of facial close-ups, presumably in order for the film to subsequently play well on the small screen.
One of the more memorable performances was that of the matronly Nina Usatova as the leader of the savage Kharyuk people, whose lands Helen's entourage has to cross to reach her betrothed. Usatova steals every scene in that sequence, which is somewhat obviously played for comic relief.
Nevertheless, the film acquits itself well by stretching its comparatively shoestring budget to the limit. It looks similar to a $40 $50 million Hollywood film. The cinematography is atmospheric, well lit and generally melds well with the computer-generated effects. CGI use is rather sparing compared with something like LOTR, but then this is not only because of budgetary constraints. The filmmakers didn't cut corners on things like extras and sets. The film features around 1800 costumed extras, and nine different "large" sets were built, the most spectacular of these being Galirad, which covered 5 kilometers square on a Mosfilm studio backlot. The film also makes use of numerous on-location forest sequences shot in Slovakia. CGI is used mostly in the background in establishing shots and the level of CGI use builds up slowly, until going full-bore in the closing magical battle sequence. The battle scenes of are varying quality some are quite clear and easy to follow, while others are pretty sloppy and a blur of swords and grunts. The fighting is not very gory and would probably earn the film a PG-13 rating in the U.S.
The film's unique and exotic look, which draws on an amalgam of some never-before-seen elements from Slavic archeology, makes it a novelty item. Wolfhound looks positively Scythian with his long hair, beard, scars and animal-hide costume. Helen's red beaded wedding dress was painstakingly created from 3000 individual parts. The bat sidekick is a first, and its CGI is very accomplished nearly impossible to tell that the bat was not real. A healing process used by a white wizard to remedy some near-fatal wounds is also thus far one-of-kind. It uses heat provided from the campfires and the three healing sequences (one of them repairing the bat's wing) elicit a sense of wonder.
Outside of Russia, the film should benefit from the post-Lord-of-the-Rings renewed interest in the fantasy genre and the general curiosity about Russians' take on the genre.
I was looking for some traditional adventure movie, yet with an
intriguing story. Honestly movies like Eragon didn't manage to deliver
that sense of real epic journey. So I was in the mood to try something
new when I stumbled across that Russian gem. Even from its very
beginning the Wolfhound lived up to my expectations.
A brilliant recreation of the well-known story about a boy, who seeks revenge for his murdered family. Without any unnecessary delay the story jumps in time and the boy is already a swordsman on his quest for justice for his slaughtered tribe. Following his destiny Valkodav makes new friends in the face of a charming bat, a blind magician, a saved victim and a bedazzling princess.
What I particularly like about this movie is its realistic atmosphere. The people look staggeringly rigid and joyless, the breath-taking scenery alternates with evil-infected places like the dark and muddy pagan village. The hero bleeds like anyone else who meets the blade. When the ultimate battle takes place Valkodav is at his upsurge to change the course of history.
If you liked Conan and The Lord of the Rings, Wolfhound would certainly surge some emotions you though you had forgotten. And all I can do is to restlessly wait for the sequel.
Russian made fantasy film concerning Wolfhound who seeks to get revenge
on the people who killed his family and his tribe and threw him into
slavery. He ends up meeting a princess and...well thats the story.
I don't know if this is a great film, I really don't care, Frankly the film grabbed on an emotional level and took me back to the place I go when I read good swords and sorcery novels. From the point where we see Wolfhound and his bat, I was hooked. More so once he started his solo assault on the castle that is the first great (yes great) set piece of the film. No one is making films like this any more...or maybe ever. This film has the high adventure of old Hollywood fantasy films but mixes it with a sense of reality and gravitas that is missing in pretty much every sword and sorcery fantasy movie. As much fun as the earlier films were they always had a sense of dress up. In most cases we were not in these mythical kingdoms, we were on sets. Lord of the Rings came along and blew that all to hell. Now everything feels unreal...or did until this film came along.
Set in a time when "the gods still walked among men" the film has the feel of a rural Russia. We are in these places, the towns, the forests, the castles and the temples. These are real places. The characters seem real as well. To be certain they are not real people but the fantasy equivalent, but they still feel as though they belong in the world they inhabit. This is a world where magic works and for most of the film its kept to a minimum so that the magic we see is special (indeed the film is reasonably free of CGI which only really shows up for the final show down between the various factions, and while the CGI at the end isn't LOTR perfect, it gets the job done).
The story, based in some form on a novel or novels, is nicely dense. The film doesn't breeze along mindlessly, it is heading in a certain direction and it takes its time going where its going so that layers and characters are built up. Many minor characters are given enough of a presence so that when you meet them later in the film, or see them in the background you have a sense that the character is some one other than soldier number 2. If there is a flaw it is perhaps an odd side trip to a river community. While it allows for some information to be brought in to the plot it isn't wholly necessary (perhaps what happens there will have effects in the promised sequels).
Also helping things is a dynamite score which is often hauntingly beautiful. I may have to try and track down a cd if one exists. The music is often married to some very beautiful sequences to stunning effect, I'm particularly thinking of the song of the prisoner who changed his fate and the sequence when the princess heads off to meet her bridegroom the latter is a beautiful sequence that is cross cut with the bad guys getting ready to attack.
I love the film. I can't speak rationally about it since even though its flawed (the opening sequence where the villains attack and kill Wolfhound's family is clichéd and has some really bad wigs) I fell under its spell. Its a grand adventure film of the highest order. Its the sort of film they don't make any more- or never really did.
You'll forgive me I want to go into great detail about the film but I think it would be better if you just saw it for yourself. Its wonderful.
I've just seen this glorious epic at a Kiev cinema and am amazed at how
Russian cinema can release such a superb fantasy film. This is an
adaptation of the first Volkodav fantasy novel by Maria Semyonova that
draws on a wide range of Slavic mythology.
Alexander Bukharov is well cast as the hero, the "wolfhound" fighting the evil "wolf", with a strong supporting cast that relies on impact more than the hairstyles, tooth-whitener and revealing loincloths of Hollywood. This is not a sentimental film, but accepts the violence and closeness-to-nature of tribal life, reminiscent of the Dark Ages. The film's stark, realistic feel reminded me of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, that emotionally draws many parallels.
Bukharov would be an ideal King Arthur or King Alfred - it's a pity that his nationality will probably write off any Hollywood offers. The obvious comparison is to Lord of the Rings, but the movie manages to keep originality in many plot strands, effects and characterization's.
Its landscapes are relatively muted, having been filmed in Slovakia rather than New Zealand, but its effects and monsters are winners over Hollywood, by maintaining suspense and keeping many nasties just out of vision. By having the main effects based on primal forces of nature, rather than a new-generation iteration of Predator or Alien, it avoids the typical clichés that most fantasy films suffer from.
I hope this gets a wide release in Europe and the USA - it certainly deserves it.
I admit that I rented this movie initially because I wanted to watch
something 'bad'. Sometimes I do that as it's a fun mix to be able to
find something to make fun of. 'Wolfhound' sounded like it would be an
entertaining joke - some low budget tragedy of a movie with a bunch of
men running around with swords.
However, while it wasn't the most amazing film I'd ever seen, there was very little to make fun of as I was shocked to find I actually enjoyed watching it. (Yes, the fight scenes are hokey at times, but the way it's done you kind of start to transcend the action on screen and imagine more than there is. It's hard to explain, but things are constantly moving even if it doesn't make the greatest sense.) I can understand how anyone would feel this is derivative. It didn't add too many new and original ideas, and yet there was enough interesting to keep the somewhat generic plot from becoming tedious. Wolfhound's bat is an obvious gem, but there's enough other things to wonder about the various characters (the details that are glossed over sometimes) to keep you wondering despite the somewhat plain meta-story.
Lush, interesting scenery also pops up from time to time, giving it hints of Lord of the Rings, and yet it's somehow nice not having over-exaggerated scenes.
The clincher, though, is that there was something altogether too real about the movie. More than once I found the world 'believable' thanks to subtle special effects and a kind of grittiness that makes the characters, while not altogether perfect, human. Once I was done, I was crying out in appreciation that the movie didn't drift into the usual Hollywood marketing, overacting, or other posturing drudgery. (The bat didn't talk, dance, and sing and inspire a line of breakfast cereal! Rapture!) It felt fresh and real, something altogether missing from most of the blockbuster movies I've seen recently (and thankfully devoid of the usual overpaid action-movie actors trying to upstage each other!) It may not become a favorite of mine, but it was a breath of fresh air. A movie instead of a sales pitch for a series. And I'm quite thankful for that. I hope the cast all the success in the future... hopefully without letting it go to their heads.
Also, next time maybe they can light their sets better or afford better cameras. :)
It's true, I started with low expectations. I also rated this higher
because I don't see many Russian movies. But let's face it, it was
better than Eragon, Narnia and Terabithia put together. With a lower
budget, it is comparable to Lord of the Rings.
Of course, the plot is not terribly original, but it's not a cheap copy of something else, either. Even from the start you know this is a heroic fantasy and the film fully delivers both in action and special effects and background story. It also suffers from the Russian book worm: a lot of characters, sometimes you don't know who is who, since they all look dirty and long haired. The men too :) The sound is not really professional, the music seems added on the film with no real consideration of what is going on.
However, it was really enjoyable. If you take Conan, you add a bit of Lord of the Rings and a little of the Sergiu Nicolaescu movies, you get an American-Romanian Wolfhound :) The ending is a bit pathetic, but the lead character is truly well played. The other actors are mediocre at best. And no, the bat does not turn into an eagle, it's just bad CGI.
I spent my childhood in a country behind the "iron curtain", in the
Soviet sphere of influence. As such, as a kid I've seen more Russian
movies than most people in the west. And then, after the fall of USSR,
I haven't seen any Russian movie at all. I was very intrigued upon
hearing of this movie - I wanted to see how modern Russian
cinematography looks like.
I can say that the movie is a treat. It may not be the best fantasy movie ever, but it's definitely in the top of my list.
The story is not really all that original, but it's different enough from the typical Hollywood to feel fresh. As others have noted, the movie deals with some philosophic aspects regarding fate and free will as well as Slavic mythology.
The production value is just fabulous. I found the town of Galirad incredibly realistic and then I've read that it was actually built on 5 sq.Km (2 sq. miles). It looks real, it feels real. The costumes are also nicely done.
The special effects are just incredible, especially considering that we're not talking about Hollywood budgets. The main character has a bat sidekick, which happens to be the most realistic CGI animal I've seen. I'm still not convinced it's 100%, I think they "cheated" by using a real bat in some of the shots.
Acting is good, even though it's not stellar; the characters are somewhat underdeveloped.
Overall, I think it's a must-see movie - if only to see something different than you're used to. (as an aside, just after I've seen the movie, I checked the TV; "Troy" was on. It looked so fake, so cliché, so much obsessed with the big stars it had on-screen that the story had to take the backseat, that I couldn't watch it.) With this film, the Russians have shown that they still can do great movies. I can't wait to see more of them!
Not surprisingly, the new wave of Russian directors & films kick some asses, for sure. For the ones who haven't seen "Admiral", "Mongol" or "The 9th Company", "Wolfhound" might be quite a nice surprise. This movie is very well made, full of high tension fighting scenes and quite a nice plot (slightly touched by clichés like LOTR or Conan, of course). No, it's not Peter Jackson, no Hollywood sky-high budgeted movie: it'a a nice movie from Russia. I think we'll hear about Mr. Ledbedev (the director) quite soon. Anyway, this is only the first book from the four ones on the subject,right? What it's more interesting is that, even the leading lady-actress starred in "The Bourne Supremacy", the rest of the cast is quite new to us. And they don't disappoint, if you just don't make the big mistake to compare them to the Hollywood stars, living in a different system with different rules. Before 1989, living in Romania, I was intoxicated with Russian movies (the war ones, quite good, the classics - exceptional, but some of them were really crap), maybe more than other people behind the Iron Curtain. Now, it's good to see there is a new fresh breath in the Russian movie-making.
Gotta agree with previous comment - if you have read the book, do not
watch the movie, or prepare yourself for a weak parody of the book. As
a stand alone it is not THAT bad - certainly better than "Wizard of the
Earthsea"... but not better than anything else of what I have seen from
fantasy movies...except maybe some of TV series crap. Many of the ideas
are brutally taken from other movies, and many of them - done poorly. A
lightsaber alone in one of scenes was something... looked like they
decided "oh gosh, those saber-things in Star Wars looks good, we need a
bigger and better one!". The bat does look good...
Another failing, but this is usual one for most fantasy movies, there is a single example of partially functional armour in the movie - main heroine wears a mail shirt at one point. Rest wear some crazy mix of stupid looking non-functional stuff that would restrict movement and make it much harder to fight - no surprise that main hero ignores that crap and fights unarmoured, even if in book he preferred to wear a mail when possible.
All in all, it is clear that with enough money they can get effects on the level of world standard, but otherwise this movie is a waste of time.
Coming from someone who has no prior knowledge of the book and who loves Russian fantasy, Wolfhound was a film with good things as well as a lot of problems. The way that Wolfhound looks is its best asset, the scenery is just breathtaking, the costumes really suit the fantasy atmosphere and most of the photography- excepting some slow-motion that doesn't add anything- and CGI are similarly great(loved the bat). Second place is the music score, which is hauntingly beautiful and adds so much to every scene. The atmosphere is brilliantly evocative as well, and there is some good acting in the supporting cast, Nina Usatova knows how to steal a scene and it is thrilling to watch. The leads are not as convincing, there is a fair bit of awkwardness and the wild-eyed innocence does go overboard. Most of the action scenes are chaotic, especially the climax. The direction is inconsistent, sometimes it's fluid and assured, at other times it gets chaotic and convoluted like in the action scenes. The script is rather stilted and doesn't give the actors much to work with or give us time to properly get to know the characters(basically left as fantasy clichés), while the story is formulaic(much has been said about the Conan the Barbarian-like beginning and understandably), very daft at times and not always very engaging. There's a lot of atmosphere here but not enough magic and the structure can feel choppy and rushed, you don't have to have read the book to figure out that there were things left out and re-written, it actually shows. In conclusion, a fantasy film that induced mixed results from this viewer, some good things on display(the production values and music) but there's too much bad too(story, script and action scenes). 5/10 Bethany Cox
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