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:

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:

The Neon Demon (2016): Slow and Weird (Review)

Elle Fanning The Neon Demon

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon is, beneath its slow weirdness, a cautionary tale and a horror film that creeps up on the viewer. At just under two hours the film seems much longer and it seems to be almost a love letter to Italian maestro Dario Argento’s Suspiria

The action in this tale of a young talentless beauty “I got looks (sic) and that’s worth money” who attempts to break into the modeling business in Hollywood, is a 180 degree twist to the Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone vehicle “La La Land.”

Unfortunately the film moves at a snail’s pace and Refn tends to drag out his visuals that bit too long.  The director specializes in scenes that take forever to get through, sometimes with minimal dialogue, and while it works on some films, like “Drive” and Only God Forgives it only serves to frustrate and bore in The Neon Demon.

The acting, which is spot on by Elle Fanning as the new kid in town, along with Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks (in a blink and you’ll miss her cameo) is a bit hit and miss.  The only other performer who raises the bar is Jena Malone (The RuinsSucker Punch). Desmond Harrington (Wrong Turn, Ghost Ship) looks ill and the two other models are wooden in every sense of the word. 

Reeves is particularly good as the douche motel manager “214 has got to be seen” who seems too impressed by the 13 year old “Lolita” who just checked in.

Fanning, who is starting to steadily outshine her sister Dakota, is brilliant as the slightly vapid teen who wants to become famous and rich on the virtue of her looks alone. As the character tells her male friend, she cannot act, sing or write, so it is her natural beauty that must pave the way to her fortune.

Unfortunately, there is an all too familiar sense of doom to the youngster who seems to be heading on the right track. Everyone she meets is weird or at the very least damaged and we can feel that this will not end well for anyone.

Refn has pulled out all stops here. There is a taste of lesbian necrophilia, some cannibalism and scene that seems to suggest that female models are not better than dogs. (Think of canines and their disgusting habit of eating regurgitated “food.”)

The entire film has a “bad dream” quality to it that is in keeping with Refn’s near somnambulistic delivery, started with Ryan Gosling’s almost narcoleptic performance as the driver in “Drive” and continued with his later role in “Only God Forgives.”

Fanning’s character is, like Gosling’s, almost silent when it comes to everyday conversation. The young thing clearly is not thinking deep thoughts and if she were, could not explain them anyway. Jesse (Fanning) is slow on the uptake which makes her “end” not too surprising.

If there were any message at all with Refn’s latest effort it is clearly that “beautiful” people are not, as a rule, the sharpest tool in the shed. Ambition needs some smarts to back it up and Jesse lacks the knowledge to really survive.

The ending is shocking, to a degree, but somewhat anti-climatic. The film is worth watching, especially if one is a Refn fan, and is available on Amazon Prime, if you are a member, or can be streamed/rented, if you are not.

The Neon Demon may not give you nightmares but the 3.5 star film will make the viewer think. On a sidenote, Keanu Reeves plays an unpleasant character very, very well: “Wider…”

MacGyver: Cigar Cutter – “If You Die, You’re Fired” (Review)

Lucas Till as MacGyver

This episode of MacGyver “Cigar Cutter” brings everything together in terms of the team and the now not so new leader Matty Webber. With her threat to Bozer, “If you die, you’re fired,” and her handy take down of “Dr. Zito: Webber has proven to be as full of compassion as she is Queen of the bad arse’s.

David Dastmalchian returns as Murdoc and he turns out to be a partner of “Mr. Organization” (the splendid William Mapother). The two men have a third member in their little team, a mercenary type who fakes his way in with a prosthetic mask. (Played by busy English actor Mark Sheppard, the role is pretty impressive considering he does not have that much screen time.)

The flashback sequence at the start mentions Patricia Thornton (Sandrine Holt) yet again and it is looking more and more like she will be popping up in a future episode, if not this season, then the next. Sidenote: MacGyver has already been given the green light for a second season. Fans are, no doubt, overjoyed, although the original MacGyver, Richard Dean Anderson, who nixed appearing on the reboot, will be less than impressed…

Regardless of the little things that still annoy (For example, the titles that have no apparent connection to the episodes…Did anyone else struggle and fail to spot a “cigar cutter?” Answers in the comment section below, please and thank you.) the show does keep getting better in terms of character dynamics.

Another annoying aspect of the show’s plot line is that Tony Stark robot with AI and a very similar English accent to the “metal man Friday” who became a “real boy” in the films….

Matty Webber has taken on the mantle of Phoenix big boss capably and this episode shows why she was hired. Tough, caring, and a damned good shot, Webber is now firmly in the status of regular, and beloved, cast member in the new re-imaging of the ’80’s favorite. Dalton keeps his end up with enough comedic soft shoe movements and Riley, now that that horrid hairdo is gone, is the official heart throb of the show.

Bozer, in this episode, finally gets some sign that Riley cares about him. Of course that only happens after the fake Dr. Zito stabs Wilt in the stomach but it is clear that MacGyver’s bestie’s heart still throbs for Riley.

Dalton managest to “do a MacGyver” (almost) and, with a little help from Riley, makes some and Mac, makes a bomb that blows up the wall to the servers.

Along side the main plot of Murdoc teaching an evil mercenary new tricks in order to kill off all of Phoenix, there is the “Mac’s dad is missing” storyline. It would be beyond cool if the original MacGyver (Anderson) appeared  as Poppa MacGyver but Anderson has pretty much stated that he will have nothing to do with the new show…

Leaving aside the idea of a cameo by the first Mac, this episode proved that Till has grown into the shoes worn by the first hero of the series and that fans love it almost, if not as much, as the original.

MacGyver airs Fridays on CBS. Tune an and see what you think about this new “Mac.”

Cast:

I Baked Him a Cake (2016): Short and Disturbing Horror (Review)

All images courtesy of Samantha Kolesnik

Written by Samantha Kolesnik (proving that “The Price of Bones” was not a fluke at all) and directed by  Vanessa Ionta Wright (who killed with her Stephen King adaptation  of “Rainy Season“) I Baked Him a Cake is a gloriously dark and foreboding bit of short horror cinema that catches the viewer’s interest and holds it throughout.

Starring Fleece as the mother and Lillian Gray (in her third role as an actress) as Lenora, the film does not bode well for the kid’s father, apparently, as the girl’s mum busily tidies up as Lenora bakes her dad a birthday cake. 

From the start, where the youngster goes into a bathroom that looks more like an abattoir,  we are aware that there is much more going on here than just a domestic spat gone wrong. Underneath the stern and somewhat unloving exterior of the mother, there seem to be control issues.

When Lenora wants to use the toilet, mum is reluctant to leave the room. The child remonstrates with her parent and the way she delivers the line seems to indicate that this is a longstanding problem. Just this scene alone brings up all sorts of questions about the relationship between these two.

Before the girl bakes the cake, Mother is industriously cutting up body parts and the shadow work in the one scene is brilliantly macabre. (There is also a touch of dark comedy in this particular shot, with a stubborn bone having to be snapped in two…)

Fleece manages to really disturb as the murderous mum who is not overly loving toward her child nor, apparently, her husband. Gray gives the concerned child she plays a depth that, combined with Fleece’s performance, also leads the audience to wonder what the real story is behind the missing father issue.

At seven minutes,  Kolesnik and Wright pack a lot of nuance and disturbing imagery into a very short time to brilliant effect. We almost begin to fear for little Lenora before the movie finishes as we also question just what really happened to daddy?

There is no clear implication that Mother did the dad in. She just sets about cleaning up a very bloody mess and at one point hands Lenora a black plastic bag full of what we know to be filled with viscous objects from mummy’s “work.” Once again there is that disconcerting feeling that there is much more going on here.

The cinematography by Henrik A. Meyer is crisp and dark. The camera zeroes in on Mother’s face and we see, with his focus on her un-wielding features, that this “working mother” is a very cold fish.

By the end of the film we are more worried for Lenora than we are for “Daddy” and the result is an unsettling experience that titillates and leaves the viewer asking questions about what is really happening here.

I Baked Him a Cake is a solid four star film. The juxtaposition of the child making a cake and her mother cleaning up a homicidal mess is a fascinating one and also adds much to the mystery of how these two female characters really get on.

Kolesnik and Wright make a brilliant team here and one hopes that they produce more films together in the immediate future.

I Baked Him a Cake Teaser from Vanessa Ionta Wright on Vimeo.