Movie Review: Attack on Titan (2015)

August 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


I thought I had sworn off live-action manga/anime adaptations since the abysmal Dragon Ball: Evolution (you know, the one where Goku’s a white American high school kid), but a recent trailer I saw of Attack on Titan, based on the Japanese manga of the same name, got me interested. Plus several people have raved on to me about how good the manga/anime is, but given that there are so many volumes now and I don’t have the time to start, I thought I’d cheat a little and try to get up to speed through this 98-minute movie.

Now, since watching the film, I have read that fans of the manga/anime are up in arms because of the liberties the filmmakers took in adapting the source material. None of that is relevant to this review.

Accordingly, my impression of the movie is probably better than he general consensus, which is that it sucked more balls than there are Dragon Ballz. Still, that doesn’t mean I liked it. Attack on Titan straddles an uncomfortable line often seen in manga/anime live-action adaptations, where it tries to be “realistic” to differentiate itself from its source material but stay true to it at the same time to appease fans. The result is a film that pisses everyone off for not being able to do either effectively.

Allow me to backtrack a little. The premise of the film is a very interesting and imaginative one. Some time in the future, these naked humanoid giants with no genitals begin roaming the land and eating people for no apparent reason. After humanity is nearly driven to extinction, the remaining survivors manage to build massive concentric walls to keep these giants out. A hundred years pass and no one has seen a titan — until now.

The story focuses on youngster Eren Jaeger (Haruma Miuru) and his two friends, Mikasa Ackerman (Kiko Mizuhara) and Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongo) when they first encounter the titans, and then skips forward in time to when they are members of a human resistance army dedicated to fending the titans off.

The first part of the film, when the titans emerge, is executed quite well. Though the special effects are not up to Hollywood standards, there is an anime-esque aesthetic to the CGI that suits the eerie tone of the movie — at least that part of it anyway. The titans are grotesque and creepy ass looking, with randomly deformed body parts and facial features. Their expressions are what the Japanese refer to as “hentai”, which basically means perverse sexual desire. These initial sequences are brutal, extremely violent, and highly terrifying, the kind of stuff you’d expect to see in a horror film.

And honestly, that’s what I thought Attack on Titan — a title which, in typical Japanese fashion, doesn’t even make sense anyway — was: a monster horror movie. If it stuck to being that kind of movie, I think I would have liked it a lot. It didn’t take long, however, for the movie to steer towards a more traditional fantasy manga plot. As it turns out, the titans can only be killed by severing something in their nape, and accordingly, the humans develop some kind of mechanical outfit that more or less turn them into Spider-Man ninjas. Yeah, they shoot wires from their belts and fly around in the air, bouncing off walls and shit while carrying swords.

Once this happens, Attack on Titan evolves into a war movie of sorts, but it’s just not a very compelling one. The flaws in the special effects also become a lot more obvious when the characters are flying all over the place. There’s simply not enough story advancement and the characters are all poorly developed, to the extent where I was beginning to get some of them confused with each other. Admittedly, some of the quirks are probably cultural, but none of them came across as real people.

There is a nice twist towards the end (not sure how close this is to the manga/anime), and then the film finishes abruptly. I was like, “WTF?” before I realised, shockingly, that there is a second part to the movie — Attack on Titan: The End of the World —  set to be released in September. When I put that into perspective, I suppose the first part of Attack on Titan didn’t finish on too bad of a note. It remains to be seen whether more thought will be put into the characters in the second part.

On the whole, there are some positives to take out of Attack on Titan, especially in its early stages thanks to some effective and perverse horror imagery. However, it felt like so many aspects of this fascinating world and its characters were barely given any attention at all, and I fail to understand why they couldn’t have extended its relatively short 98-minute running time to 2+ hours to deliver a much more well-rounded film.  Still, by manga/anime adaptation standards, Attack on Titan is a passable piece of entertainment, just not a very good one.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Insurgent (2015)

August 18, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


Let’s just be upfront about this. The Divergent series is to the Hunger Games what Percy Jackson is to Harry Potter. It’ll always be the less attractive, less appealing, shittier cousin.

It might be unfair to Shailene Woodley, who might be every bit as capable as Jennifer Lawrence in playing a strong, albeit unwilling action hero, though it remains unavoidable that the two franchises will always be compared to each other.

And accordingly, Insurgent compares unfavourably to Catching Fire as the second instalment of a post-apocalyptic teen franchise. It’s not badly made, but if you didn’t enjoy the first film all that much — put me in that category — then it’s unlikely this one will change your mind about the series.

One thing the film does well is in reminding us of the story, or explaining it to newcomers, using a short voiceover that more or less summarises the premise — ie, the future world, following an extinction event of sorts, splits humans into specific groups because it helps maintain peace. Everyone is put into either Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), or Erudite (the intelligent), or they are Factionless and ostracised from the community.

Woodley plays Tris, a teenage girl who happens to be Divergent, meaning she has elements of multiple groups and therefore can’t be squeezed into any. Big deal, right? Well apparently, yes, because evildoers led by Kate Winslet want to hunt her down and kill her.

All this is explained efficiently at the beginning so there’s not a lot of confusion. From there, Tris, her loverboy (Theo James), brother (Ansel Elgort, incidentally her loverboy from The Fault in Our Stars and Mr Fantastic (Miles Teller) find themselves on the run and scheming to defeat Winslet and her goons.

They meet people like Octavia Spencer and discover that James’s mother is Naomi Watts, but the whole focus of the film is about a secret box that came out of nowhere but is supposed to hold some really important info. And guess who is the only person that can open it? Yeah, you guessed it. There’s more of those virtual reality trials they had from the first film, and you can pretty much guess what happens in the end.

The problem I had with Divergent was that I couldn’t buy the concept of a society where everyone can be categorised by a single trait. With Insurgent, it’s more about not buying this whole “box” business. It seems like something conjured up to help create a point for the story to continue, and it makes the narrative predictable and cliched.

I don’t want to make it sound like Insurgent is a bad movie, because it’s not. It’s decently made with enough passion and quality performances from quality actors. But for me it was just such a “meh”‘experience. I was only mildly interested and entertained, and frankly, it just didn’t do much for me at all. I have doubts the next part in the series, Allegiant, annoyingly split into two parts as well, will be able to change that.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

August 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


I was somewhat ambivalent about seeing The Man From UNCLE, the new Guy Ritchie spy flick based on the 1960s TV series of the same name.

Sure, there were exciting names attached — Henry Cavill (Superman), Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger/Winklevii), Hugh Grant and Alicia Vikander (no doubt the “it” girl in Hollywood right now) — but it just felt like this would be one of those films that would slip under the summer blockbuster radar. Promotional efforts haven’t felt particularly aggressive, hype has been virtually non-existent, and reviews have been generally positive albeit unspectacular.

But I did what I do, and that’s to watch as many movies as I can. With neutral expectations going in, I can report that The Man from UNCLE is a nice change of pace from the typical excesses of big action films in recent times. It’s more style than substance, but there sure is a lot of style, and it’s laid back attitude renders it a relatively relaxing popcorn experience. If you feel the need to unwind, this is the film for you.

The story is quite straightforward: Cavill plays an American superspy and Hammer plays the ace of the KGB. At the height of the Cold War, the two are forced to team up to bring down international terrorists led by Australia’s own Elizabeth Debicki, who may be building a nuclear bomb. The key to their mission is a young wan who must be the most beautiful, glamorous East German mechanic in history (Vikander), whose father is believed to be working on the bomb.

And so begins a fun-filled ride with three attractive people who are thrown together against their wills but have to find a way to make it work and complete their mission. From a big picture perspective it’s not hard to see where it is heading. The two spies start off as despised rivals programmed who want each other dead (it is the Cold War, after all) and there is plenty of mistrust threatening to tear the mission apart, but eventually they put differences aside and combine their impressive talents, Avengers-style, to kick some terrorist ass.

However, it feels like Ritchie is well aware that you already know about this cliche, so instead of trying to deviate from this path, he embraces it by making the journey as good-looking, stylish and fun as possible, and importantly, not taking things too seriously.

Consequently, the film gives off a very relaxed, cheeky sort of vibe, not dissimilar to the Oceans Eleven franchise, where it feels like the characters are always in perfect control of the situation and rarely get their feathers ruffled no matter how tense things are supposed to be. There’s pros and cons to this type of experience. On the one hand it’s fun and you are repeatedly impressed by how cool and suave the heroes are, but on the other there is rarely any genuine tension because there’s never a sense of mortal danger.

I’d just had a long week at work and recently watched the terrifyingly tense Austrian horror flick Goodnight Mommy, so I didn’t really mind just sitting back and enjoying the show as a relaxing popcorn adventure that won’t raise the pulse too much.

In line with laid-back tone, the film makes good use of light humour and sharp dialogue, most of which is witty banter between Cavill and Hammer (they even sound like a comedy duo) as they try to one-up each other in abilities as well as gadgets to prove the superiority of their country. Some of it is inherently hilarious because technology considered cutting edge in those days is of course unfathomably archaic now. At the same time, it’s refreshing to see an era not dominated by technology, such as the opening scene where Cavill had to navigate the streets of Berlin with an old-fashioned map (!).

I get the feeling that the film is targeted more towards older audiences. For starters, young people are likely to never heard of the TV show on which the film is based and most of them won’t even understand just how tense the Cold War era was. There’s plenty of vintage fashion and vintage cars, and a throwback sensibility I suspect people used to modernized non-stop action can fully appreciate.

Speaking of the action, it’s decent even by modern standards. It is again more style than substance and obviously nowhere near as relentless as say Mission: Impossible 5 or Fast & Furious 7, though it was never meant to compete with those films. As with everything about it, this film that takes things at its own leisurely pace, and proudly so. Tonally, there are uneven moments that struggle to keep away from the farcical, though for the most part the film stays true to Ritchie’s vision.

In any case, The Man from UNCLE can always lay claim to having the best-dressed cast of the year. The performances of the star trio are also fantastic — Vikander in particular is smooooooooking — and they genuinely appear to be enjoying themselves, resulting in great chemistry that fuels the movie with a jovial atmosphere. I find it amusing that they got a Brit to play an American, an American to play a Russian, and a Swede to play a German. Only Hugh Grant gets to play his true nationality.

I think, or at least I hope, there is a place for films like The Man from UNCLE in today’s cinematic landscape. While it won’t blow anyone away, there is an elegance and sophistication I find charming about it. Considering how badly it could have gone, I feel the adaptation ended up about as well as it could have gone. I’m excited to see how they will take it to the next level in the sequel.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Ted 2 (2015)

August 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


Seth MacFarlane is a talented guy with a sharp tongue and a crass sense of humour. While he can polarize audiences, his first feature film, Ted, was a smash hit that made nearly US$550 million on a US$51 million budget and earned surprisingly positive reviews from critics.

And so of course a sequel would be inevitable. Ted 2 is, like its predecessor, a mixed bag, with some big hits and a fair share of misses. I saw Ted back in 2012 when it first came out so it’s hard to remember clearly, but I don’t recall laughing as hard during that as when I watched Ted 2, which has a decent handful of explosive belly laughs. Strictly speaking, however, while it’s probably not as “good” as the original, it’s possible that Ted 2 is the funnier film, pound for pound and laugh for laugh.

For those who don’t know, the concept behind Ted is that a kid, John Bennett (who grows up to be Marky Mark Wahlberg) once made a wish that his toy bear (Ted, voiced by Seth MacFarlane) would come to life — and that wish came true. It made world headlines when it first happened, but 30 years later no one gives a shit anymore. John and Ted are still best friends, but they are also a couple of sophomoric stoners who do a lot of stupid and crazy things.

Ted 2 is more or less a continuation of that adventure, though this time it centers on Ted’s struggle to be recognised as a human being in a historic court case that is basically a thinly veiled reference to the civil rights movement and gay marriage. With Mila Kunis unable or unwilling to return for whatever reason, Ted 2 takes on a new direction with a new female lead played by the lovely Amanda Seyfried, a new lawyer with a penchant for weed and personality very much like John, presenting a stark contrast to the ex who kept trying to change him.

I was pleasantly surprised that MacFarlane actually put some effort into piecing together a fresh and coherent new storyline. He honestly could have just phoned it in and collected his cheque, so kudos to him for at least trying to create a premise that offers deeper insights than your typical stupid comedy while also providing a solid platform for more offensive and disgusting humour.

The gags come fast and furious (no pun intended) in Ted 2 and they come in all shapes and sizes (ditto). MacFarlane just keeps throwing them at the audience and eventually something will stick. It’s doesn’t necessarily make for a rounded experience but at least it’s a often a damn funny one. There were moments where I went, “You can do better than this,” but also others where I was in awe of McFarlane’s quick wit and demented mind.

The film is at its best when the jokes are less staged. It’s often the off-the-cuff remarks and actions of the characters that elicit the most laughs, whereas the more elaborate jokes MacFarlane takes time to execute tend to be less funny or fall flat by the time the punchline comes. It helps that Marky Mark and MacFarlane have fantastic chemistry and can engage in rapid-fire exchanges with ease, and that Amanda Seyfried is able to slide in between them seamlessly (again, no pun intended).

The supporting cast also deliver some great gags and lines. Tom Brady is involved in a doozy that took up more screen time than I had expected, while Patrick Warburton is fantastic just popping up randomly and being a dick. My favourite, however, still has to be Giovanni Ribisi, who returns as the psychotic Donny from the first film and is thirsty for revenge. The always welcome Morgan Freeman also has a small role — shockingly, not as God or the narrator — though he doesn’t get down and dirty as much as I would have liked.

There are aspects to Ted 2 that I didn’t like or didn’t find funny, but there are enough jokes that hit the bulls-eye for me to rate it above many smarter, more consistent comedies that don’t quite generate the full on, gut-busting laughs. I recommend it to anyone who doesn’t get offended or grossed-out too easily.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Jurassic World (2015) (IMAX 3D)

August 9, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews


Like for many people who grew up in the 1990s, Jurassic Park was a major cinematic event in my life. It was a movie you heard about and just had to see. It wasn’t the first dinosaur movie, but it was the first that made you feel like the dinosaurs were genuinely real and that it was possible for them to be real. And most importantly, it was actually a great movie full of action, suspense and characters we cared about and could root for.

And so of course I was super excited about Jurassic World, the long-awaited “reboot” that has already become the third-highest grossing film of all time after raking in box office earnings of nearly US$1.55 billion in just six weeks (though it appears unlikely to catch Titanic‘s US$2.19 billion or Avatar‘s US$2.79 billion). I knew it wasn’t going to live up to unrealistic expectations, but I wanted to see an enjoyable blockbuster that would bring back some of the magic of the original while taking the spectacle to a whole new level.

The verdict? Mission accomplished.

Jurassic World cleverly mirrors the idea in the its story that consumers, having gotten used to the idea of “living” dinosaurs, can only be impressed by bigger, badder and scarier. The premise, which essentially ignores Jurassic Park II and III, is set 22 years after the original. Despite the disaster that was Jurassic Park, humans fail to learn their lesson as ambitious billionaire Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) decides to give the idea another go by building the massive Jurassic World theme park on the same island. But with kids having grown up in an era where dinosaurs are as real as animals they can see in a zoo, Masrani goes to great lengths to create even more dangerous creatures to draw new visitors.

At a basic level, it’s fundamentally the same film as Jurassic Park in that there’s a theme park of genetically engineered dinosaurs that get loose, a couple of kids who get caught in the middle of the mayhem, and a couple of adults trying to save them. Velociraptors also play a key role again. What it does different is broaden the scale and raise the stakes. This time, the kids are brothers played by Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, nephews of park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), more or less the Laura Dern character from the original. The Sam Neill character is replaced by raptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), who naturally has a romantic dynamic with Claire and is a bit of a swashbuckling hero.

How I feel about Jurassic Park and Jurassic World is analogous to how characters in those movies felt about their respective theme parks. Like it was for the kids in the original, Jurassic Park was for an awe-inspiring experience that completely blew my mind. Jurassic World, on the other hand, no longer has that jaw-droppingly awesomeness to it. Just like it is for the kids in this reboot, dinosaurs just aren’t as big of a deal to me anymore. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still have a bloody good time looking at them chasing people around on a giant screen. They are, after all, still dinosaurs, and dinosaurs will always be cool.

The first half of Jurassic World does an excellent job in bringing the theme park to life. It’s as you would expect if such a park existed in reality, with various different sections, attractions and rides, a petting farm, an interactive museum, shops galore and glaring corporate sponsorship. This was something we didn’t get to see in the original because the park was not fully functioning, and I found it to be a lot of fun, especially as it was presented as though we — the film audience — are also visitors to this eye-opening and wondrous place.

The second half, when the dinosaurs predictably run amok, is also well-executed. Director Colin Trevorrow, previously best known for the Indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed, does a solid job of building tension and creating a sense of chaos and despair. It’s always difficult to find the right balance of frights and humour in a film like this, but I think he gets it for the most part by keeping the focus on the action with only the occasional funny one-liner to give audiences a breather.

There is also apparently a lot of references and homages (or rip-offs, if you are a critic) to the original, which I’m not sure is a good or bad idea, though it didn’t really matter to me as I seriously can’t remember most of them anyway.

On the surface, therefore, Jurassic World is fantastic. From a popcorn movie perspective it won’t be easy to find experiences that are as spectacular and exciting. Where it struggles is all the other stuff that holds good films together — like logic, characters, and surprise.

Having been in development for more than a decade and having gone through numerous pairs of hands, Jurassic World is littered with plot holes and filled with nonsensical things galore. For some, this might kill the movie, but in its defense I think a lot of the problems are mitigated by the fast pace and fun factor. To me, it’s hard to avoid noticing the problems plaguing the plot and the script, though at the same time I found it relatively easy to move on from them without dwelling for too long.

The characters in the film are also not very well developed. Bryce Dallas Howard’s female lead is annoying and not particularly likable, while I feel they criminally underused Chris Pratt’s comedic talents in making him more of a typical action hero. He could have been super funny, charming and memorable like he was in Guardians of the Galaxy, but instead he plays a character a dozen other guys in Hollywood could have pulled off without much of a discernible difference. If he ends up playing the new Indiana Jones, which is rumored and which I can totally see, I hope they let him be all he can be.

Flaws notwithstanding, Jurassic World is a rewarding summer blockbuster experience. While it fails to capture the magic of the original from more than two decades ago, as expected, it’s still a highly entertaining film packed with spectacular visuals and plenty of fun, thrills and excitement. It’s certainly a worthy reboot if you can try and ignore all the things that don’t work and just go along for the ride.

4 stars out of 5

PS: I did not want to see Jurassic World in IMAX 3D. It’s super expensive and 3D, as I have said many times before, absolutely sucks balls. But due to timing, it was the only session I could see, and while I enjoyed seeing it all on a massive screen, the 3D did annoy me to no end. The uncomfortable glasses (that kept fogging up), the added shade of darkness and the lacklustre 3D effects all contributed to a lesser experience.

PPS: The only returning character and actor is BD Wong, aka Dr Henry Wu, who doesn’t appear to have aged much over the last 20 years. Maybe he had been injecting dinosaur DNA in himself.

PPPS: Not sure how they will one-up this in the planned sequel, scheduled for release on June 22, 2018. That said, they have clearly and intentionally left a few things open ended, and I can see a few ways in which the story might go.

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