Attack on Titan: Part 1 & 2 (2015): Battle Royale Meets Giants (Review)

Fighting the Titans

It may sound a bit dismissive to label Attack on Titan (part one and two) as “Battle Royale” meets giants” but it is not intended to be a slur on the manga based film. Both films do deliver messages on a government determined to control its denizens at all costs (although the 1999 Kashun Takami novel was much more political than the Kinji Fukasaku film released in 2000) and each features young protagonists.

Certainly BR has heroes who are yet to finish puberty, but the youngsters who battle the Titan’s in these films are not too far removed from that time span themselves. The other thing both films have in common is the “childhood interrupted” theme. Each set of players are yanked from their everyday lives and placed in situations that require them to fight.

Having not seen, or indeed read, the manga, it was easy to just take the film on its face value. The story; a world where giant’s attack and eat the general population, is interesting and the breech in the outer wall, that starts the whole two film journey, is impressive and well done.

A “giant” Titan kicks a hole in the wall and a horde of smaller creatures enter. They destroy a small town and most of the surrounding areas in the outer districts. The inner wall, full of the rulers and elite class of the nation, has not been destroyed and the heroes of both films fight to keep the Titan’s out.

The action takes place behind walls and the attacks of the giant man-eating creatures veer between hilarity and good old fashioned “King Kong” type horror. (Or even Jurassic Park, where the solicitor/lawyer gets his head crunched off by a T-Rex…) Plot wise there is nothing all that new here. It is revealed, partway through the first film, that the Titan’s were “man-made” and that their lack of genitals is a mystery, even to the creators of the things.

Still, this curious lack of reproductive equipment apparently kept the Japanese censors happy and made the film a little less “difficult” to watch.  While the female Titans did have breast, there were no offending nipples anywhere to be seen, or other genitalia to deal with.

(One character voices her interest at just how these gigantic humanoid creatures manage to procreate – there are some incredibly ugly “baby” Titans running around – but that is the only time it is mentioned.)

There are some comic moments: An enlisted man throws a Titan over his head, a young heroine eats constantly (potatoes) and her stomach is incredibly noisy when empty.

Attack on Titan (Shingeki no kyojin) is entertaining, even if one is not familiar with the original manga material by Hajime Isayama. Director Shinji Higuchi capably directs this live action adaptation of a popular Manga series. There are a number of writers connected to these two films and, according to IMDb, a few characters have been dropped, merged or changed totally.

Overall, the feel of the film is not too far removed from fantasy and/or science fiction.  The soldiers have new weapons that resemble samurai swords, “on call” and gas jets that propel the fighters through the air while powering anchors to structures. These enable the soldiers to “fly” through the air in order to attack the seemingly un-defeatable creatures.

Jun Kunimura, who played mob boss Ikemoto in Outrage   (who dies an almost comic death) and featured in “Kill Bill” volume’s one and two and the iconic cult classic Audition along with another 163 credits to his name, is, for all intents and purposes, the big bad in the film. 

His mostly understated performance helps nudge the plot points along and Kunimura is the only real “grown up” in the film. He is also easily the most despicable although Capt. Shikishima (played by Hiroki Hasegawa) comes a close second in terms of dislikable characters. 

Attack on Titan features a newer cast of young actors. None of these performers are of the Battle Royale time period. They are, however, quite capable of filling out their limited characters and look pretty good in the fight sequences. The wire work, in the film, is top notch and the combination of obvious green screen backdrops and the practical wire stunts is stimulating and impressive.

These films are not made to be taken seriously and apparently, according to the number of “dislikes” on IMDb (which go over a 1000) not really made for the discerning fans of the original Manga series or book. The Titan’s themselves are not overly frightening to look at, their faces look more like variations on the local village idiot rather than a Grimm’s Fairy Tale type Giant.

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over on YouTube, where this trailer aired in 2015, about how far the film had deviated from its source material.  Still, this is a solid 3.5 star effort that deserves a look, or two. Both are available to stream, via Amazon, or to be rented or purchased in DVD.

Fans of Japanese cinema will enjoy this offering perhaps a bit more than the annoyed fans of the manga. There is a lot of violence, a bit of low-key no-genital nudity and no cursing to be seen in the subtitles.

Check out the trailer below:

Hidden Figures (2016): Touching Unsung Heroes (Review)

The three hidden figures relaxing

Directed by Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, (Allison Schroeder was the joint author of the screenplay), Hidden Figures The Help can be seen as goes to NASA.  It peripherally tackles the same issues of inequality of race and looks at the double struggle that these real-life protagonists faced as women.

The film, and presumably the book, really has one message underneath the touching and inspiring stories of these three remarkable ladies: Education is the real key to equality. At least it was back before IBM and it’s temperamental keypunch cards and the advent of home computing. Back in the day, that university degree made the difference for intelligent women who would have been trapped in the world of “The Help” without it.

(The talented Octavia Spencer also appeared in”The Help.” The 2011 film, which also starred Viola Davis and Emma Stone, as well as Bryce Dallas Howard, also attempted to show what being black, and a woman meant in the shameful days of a segregated South.)

NASA did not see colour, however, and hired a great many black Americans to work as “computers.”  History backs this up but it also glosses over the contribution that these particular women made towards winning the space race. This was initially a one-sided contest that began in 1958 when the Russians took to the skies in an attempt to control space be getting there first.

Hidden Figures stars Spencer, as the self-taught computer “expert,” Taraji P. Henson, plays the mathematical wunderkind who grows up to become a crucial part of the early days of NASA; Katherine G. Johnson and Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, the first black female allowed to study at a white school (she then went on to be the first female engineer at NASA).

Kevin Costner is Al Harrison, the man tasked with getting those “All the Right Stuff” astronauts off the ground and getting ahead of the Russians. Jim Parsons (from The Big Bang Theory) plays a snotty character who very reluctantly accepts the new computer, Ms. Johnson to his team and Kirsten Dunst is the disagreeable Vivian Mitchell, a woman who tries very hard to hold Spencer’s character back. 

Melfi gives us an accounting that is clearly embellished in places, like the very funny and pertinent scene with the policeman at the start of the film, but it may not be too far off the mark after all. For example, Harrison’s frustration at the treatment of his math genius is played out with a simple scene.  Al smashes the “coloured” restroom sign off the wall and with a look of distaste removes another sign from Mary’s segregated coffee pot.

Hidden Figures is about much more than the racial issues of the day. It is also about the looming change in society with the new IBM computers, the move of other technology to a new high and life in a segregated world. (This too would change, but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.)

What the film does best is give us a front-row seat at the business end of NASA. (On a sidenote here, the film allows for two splendid cameo performances from Glen Powell, better known as Chad Radwell in Fox’s “Scream Queens” and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, who worked with Monáe in the Academy Award winning film, Moonlight.)

Hidden Figures may be the shorthand version of Shetterly’s book, as many have claimed, but it tells its story well. The time period looks authentic, the performers do not put one foot wrong and the film manages to be touching and, in spite of knowing how the first mission of John Glenn ended in real life, throws in a touch of suspense.

The film is a full 5 star effort. Any movie that can induce a lump in the throat while also evoking anger and sheer joy at the advancements made by the heroine’s in this recounting of a hidden history, earns every accolade it gets.

This was, apparently, a labour of love for all concerned and rightly so. It was a story that needed telling and Melfi, along with everyone else involved with this project, did a brilliant job presenting it.

Arrival (2016): Amy Adams and the Hectapods (Review)

Amy Adams

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (the chap who helmed “Prisoners” and “Sicario“) with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer – based on the Ted Chiang short story “Story of Your Life – Arrival is a slow, moving and methodical delivery of almost unconsciously epic proportions. It features the ever watchable Amy Adams meeting some “hectapods” and Jeremy Renner in a different mode than his usual heroic onscreen presentation.

Some critics have commented on the uniqueness of the aliens in the just under two hour film and stated that they are unlike other alien depictions in the past.

Oh, contraire, ‘mes amies.’

Monsters, the 2010 guerrilla-made-on-a-budget film featured multi-limbed creatures that were huge and looked not too dissimilar from these aliens. “Battle for Los Angeles” also had multi-legged, or armed (it was hard to tell) aliens who took on a squad of Marines and one Air Force Technical Sergeant.

Leaving aside the small duplicity issue of this film’s version of little green “men” Arrival manages to hit a lot of notes in the time given. It stresses the need for communication above all else and throws a game changer into the mix with a time conundrum of sorts.

The film starts with what we assume to be memories (although in essence they really are just “future” remembrances) of a daughter who dies an early death and the mourning of the parent left behind. It then moves into the day of linguistic professor Jesse Banks (Adams) going to work and finding her class decimated.

Turning on the news, we learn that 12 alien spacecraft, looking like ovoid versions of Kubrick’s obelisk from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” have arrived, hovering above the earth in odd locations across the globe. In short order, Banks is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who wants her to translate the newcomers version of language and she is joined by Ian Donnelly (Renner); a scientist.

The build up to the underplayed epilogue of the film is slowly paced. This gives us an idea of how long it would take to learn an alien communicative system as well as giving us a reason why the creatures write in a circular manner.

Non-linear time-lines are the basis for the language and the gift that the visitors mean to bestow on a hostile planet. It is the crux of the plot and the thing that drives Banks throughout the film. Somewhat amazingly, for what is in essence, a science fiction “creature feature” Arrival is a bit of a “tear jerker.”

This is only accomplished by a subtle delivery of moments of truth along the film’s own timeline. Renner’s character’s clear excitement and delight at the prospect of entering the alien spacecraft.  Adams’ tough fragility and the emotions that she displays while “remembering” her dead daughter are just part of the mixture that really sells the film and its off-center plot twist.

Even the moment where Abbott, or Costello, tap the glass with one hectapodal limb (a clear gesture meaning, “it’s behind you” toward the end of the film) feels true and rational. After all, in terms of non-verbal communication, it makes sense that even aliens could point at something and it would mean the same thing in any world: “Look at that.”

The ending is sad, yet defining, and perhaps only Adams could have pulled this one off so perfectly. Renner makes the perfect partner for the actress in this scenario and he plays the enthusiastic scientist to perfection. At no time do we confuse Ian with that arrow slinging Marvel hero that the actor is so associated with.

Villeneuve has managed to put together a tale that relies on memory of things to come with a major plot device of “seeing” things in the future at the “right time” to affect the present.  The editing and the pacing of the film makes everything come together beautifully at the end. 

Arrival conveys the strictness of a military response to an alien visit adroitly. The humorless approach, by personnel used to dealing with threats, mixed with the more aesthetic players on the team works well and also has that ring of truth to it.

Somewhat surprisingly, Arrival only garnered one Oscar (for Best Achievement in Sound Editing) as it is a full 5 star film.  It never really misses a beat and hits all the right notes throughout. It is available to watch via streaming online or on DVD.

Catch this one if you can and have a box of tissues handy just in case. Check out the trailer below:

The Accountant (2016): Ben Affleck’s Rain Man (Review)

Ben Affleck as the accountant

The Accountant, written by Bill Dubuque and directed by Gavin O’Connor, could well be dismissed by some as Ben Affleck’s “Rain Man” film. His character either has Aspergers, or, as the film seems to indicate, a high functioning form of autism. The characters in the action thriller never actually come right out and give a direct diagnosis. 

Having a heroic protagonist with some sort of “disability” is not overly unique in the film world. The Pang Brothers (The MessengersRe-cycle) created a hitman in the 2000 film Bangkok Dangerous who was a deaf-mute (they then inexplicably remade the feature in 2008  with Nicholas Cage who played the same character only this time he was neither deaf nor mute. A real shame as he could have been better in the role if that had been the case…)

Another film that had the main character as a kick-arse hero was the Thai martial arts film Chocolate. The female protagonist, like Affleck’s character, is never diagnosed as being either autistic or having Aspergers although it was clear that she was, in that film, a savant in terms of martial arts and did have the condition.

There is no real other comparison to be made with Affleck’s hitman/mathematician Christian Wolf. Wolf can, and indeed does, kick arse physically. He is as deadly with hand-to-hand combat as he is lethal with weapons. In “Chocolate,” Zen (played by JeeJa Yanin) is a savant in every sense of the word. She picks up her skills by some sort of odd osmosis, by watching the martial arts being executed, and Wolf was trained by his father. 

Wolf’s brother, Braxton; played brilliantly by former The Walking Dead regular  Jon Bernthal (Bernthal is about to hit screens in the Netflix adaptation of The Punisher, this year), is as deadly but he lacks the autism which makes Christian that bit more dangerous.

Anna Kendrick plays Dana the accountant who finds out someone has been systematically stealing from her bosses company and John Lithgow is said boss. Oscar winner J.K. Simmons is the IRS treasury agent who enlists an underling to find out who “the accountant” really is and Cynthia Addai-Robinson plays the analysis agent forced into action by Simmons’ character Ray King.

For all the “big” names in the film, Jeffrey Tambor plays Wolf’s old cell mate in prison, the movie is not “high-brow.” While it is not a bog standard thriller by any means, there is enough action and plot to keep even the most jaded movie goer interested.

Even viewers who are not fans of Ben Affleck, like my friend the local librarian – who cannot abide Affleck’s “lack of talent” – enjoyed the film and thought he brought much to the role. Granted, the level of interaction between Affleck’s character and others in the film is subdued. However, the most endearing part of the film occurs when the two brothers meet up later in the film. “Hello Braxton,” says Wolf in a way that is sweet and completely incongruous with the scenario. (It is one of the best bits of the film.)

There is a humorous attempt at a burgeoning romance between Wolf and Dana. It works, but only just, and quite wisely the film lets this matter drop without too much fanfare.

To be perfectly honest, the movie delivers more on the action sequences, and Christian’s almost super-human prowess as both an accountant for the world’s most dangerous people and hitman than it does on the character development department.

Affleck does well as does Bernthal, although the only real disappointment here is that the “twist” reveals itself all too early in the film. The constant flashbacks, despite the lack of time spent on Wolf’s brother make this a no brainer.

Simmons brings his usual workmanlike performance and Addai-Robinson gets too little screen time, as does Kendrick, but overall the cast deliver adequately although Lithgow seems to be relegated to two dimensional baddie who panics in the end.

The Accountant delivers and fires on most cylinders. It is a solid 4 star film that relies on the action to entertain. There are  few laughs, mainly the interaction between Kendrick’s character and Affleck’s but, once again, this is forgivable as the film really is more action than anything else.

Affleck does well in the fight sequences and director O’Connor puts everything together nicely.  There is no sign of the star’s Batman persona, he manages to perform his deadly tasks with all the emotion of a dead-eyed doll, and he only shows any real emotion when he cannot finish any job at hand.

It is well worth a look and can be watched on Amazon, iTunes, Google play and so on. Have a look at the trailer:

Undatement Center (2017): Dating Game (Review)

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Written and directed by Chris Esper (The Deja Vuers, Still Life), Undatement Center is a humorous look at the capricious world of modern dating.  It is almost an indictment against the millennial age of computer reliance and the awkwardness of real-life interaction with people we find attractive.

Jack (Trevor Duke) finally decides, after a 12 year break, to get back into the dating game. As befits the modern day man, he opts to join a dating company “Undatement” which is a combination of real world Tinder and speed dating. The poor chap soon realizes that getting back into the dating game requires intensive paperwork, a resume and a draw on his pocket book. 

A spin on the old maxim of kissing a lot of frogs to find a prince, Jack endures a lot of rejection. After some specious and confusing let downs for no apparent reason, he finally decides to take control; at a price. He soon finds that things are not any easier in the driver’s seat and Jack discovers that the early rejection’s came about for a reason.

Esper’s take on the modern world of dating and all the issues surrounding the search for a mate is funny, acerbic and surprising relevant.  Jack’s struggle is amusing and we feel his frustration and underlying fear.

Like most of the prospective candidates in Undatement Center, Jack is afraid of being hurt (again) and yet he continues to look for a special someone to be with. Esper gives us the dating world sans sex, this is not a journey to find a sexual partner but is, instead, a man wanting to find a woman to share things with.

This slightly “old fashioned” take on the dating game is refreshing and it plays well against the frustration of our hero. Jack goes through several stages in his search, after forking out some long green to take charge of his dating quest and at one point he comically dishes out some payback to an earlier “contestant.”

The director’s final message is a simple one and cuts to the heart of the matter. “New and different, is not better.” Jack finds that underneath the surface artifice and “structure” of the Undatement Center’s  controlled dating scenario, it is the human touch that matters most.

We do not doubt that Jack has learned a valuable lesson from his interaction with the business-like candidates he interacts with and Esper ends his tale on a uplifting note. There is some doubt as to how the whole thing will turn out but, like the film’s  humanistic message, we feel that things will move forward at their own pace and not be driven by some superficial agenda set by a company or society.

Trevor Duke gives a fine restrained performance as the man who reluctantly re-enters the dating game. His controlled frustration and confusion fits his character perfectly.

J.D. Achille as Lindsey is also spot on. Apart from being a delight to look at,  her character has an inner confidence and conviction that Achille brings to the fore with a truth that leaves no room for doubt. 

The entire cast bring something to the table in this story of urine samples, multi-page resumes (CV’s) and baffling rejection.

Undatement Center is a 5 star effort that entertains and makes a valid and pertinent social comment on the state of looking for love in this day and age of dating apps and swiping to the left or right. Esper has proven, with his latest effort, that his earlier successes are no fluke and that he can consistently deliver the goods.

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