Movie Review: Coda (2021)

TL;DR – Two parents, two kids. All of them deaf except the daughter who happens to have a gift for song. This is a story of the ties that bind a family together, and the challenges of youth being set free.

Review (warning: spoilers)

The 2021 Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, Coda benefits from timing. While the COVID pandemic has kept beating down our doors and the world continues to spiral in ways you would hope we would have learned from by now (e.g., the war in Ukraine), this film lights a much needed flame during a time of darkness.

In truth, Coda is a straight forward telling of Ruby (Emilia Jones) being torn between following her passion in singing and her love and loyalty to her parents and older brother, all of them deaf who run a family fishing business. The family is barely making ends meet, and the parents rely heavily on Ruby to be their interpreter and voice when interacting with people who don’t know sign-language.

As a coming-of-age tale, Ruby is genuine in taking care of her family but realises she cannot spend the rest of her life working on a fishing boat. On a deeper level, the story is also a “coming-of-age” for the parents who have to learn to let Ruby go and forge their own way to interact with others who they cannot hear. The one who sees the necessity for moving forward and letting go is the older brother who is frustrated that his parents rely more on Ruby than they do on him.

Coda contains the richness of a film comprised of many elements coming together in a fashion that lights up like fireworks in the night sky. The choreography is set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the scenes on the fishing boat along with Ruby’s cliff diving hideaway sanctuary are stunning. The casting is spot on with Ruby’s parents, Frank (Troy Kostur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), all being deaf in real life. Troy Kostur’s portrayal of Frank deservedly won best supporting actor at the Oscars, and Emilia Jones also learned sign language for nine months prior to the commencement of filming. Combine all this with a story whose greatest strength is in its simplicity and a soundtrack which includes singing performances by Emilia Jones and co-star Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who plays Miles (Ruby’s love interest) and you have a film that will reignite your belief that things can get better.

While the subject of deafness is one of the themes, it is not the driving focus. The central theme is family, and the growing pains that are a part of life when you’re a teenager trying to find your own path. Deafness just happens to be an additional factor that is part of Ruby’s world, and one that she strives to navigate with sensitivity and integrity. She is not always successful, but neither are her parents or her older brother in navigating her “hearing” world. The fact that Jackie often discards Ruby’s pleas to live her own life and study singing, and Leo explodes with frustration at Ruby’s acts of martyrdom and, at one point, yelling at her that she is not part of the family, demonstrates that whether you’re deaf or not, we’re all human and can be easily blinded by our own driving emotions.

Some of the weaknesses of the film is derived in the high school scenes where female students mock Ruby for being part of a deaf family. While bullying is a real problem in teenage life, its depiction in Coda was stereotyped and not delved into with any degree of meaning. Its merely a mechanism used to create some sort of tension between Ruby and Miles.

It is with touching irony that Ruby is able to slowly communicate her dreams and desires to her family through song. The scene where Frank, Jackie and Leo attend Ruby’s school for a concert, and they watch her perform (not knowing if she is any good at singing) and can only react based on the expressions in the audience is the first step to their eyes opening that Ruby has actual talent. For example, when the crowd gives a standing ovation, they realise the school choir and Ruby are actually good.

When Ruby and Miles do a duet singing the song “You’re all I need to get by” by Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye, the camera moves through the audience and the expressions of those who can hear before focusing on Ruby’s family and the scene goes completely silent. It’s a powerful sequence demonstrating not only how much we all take hearing for granted, but also the mountain Ruby has to climb in order to communicate to her family.

When Frank asks Ruby to sing while they sit on the back of his pick-up truck and he places his hands on her neck so he can feel her vocal chords vibrate, you’ll need to be reaching for the tissues quick time.

And finally, when she auditions for Berklee College of Music and she sings “Both sides, now” by Joni Mitchell and sees her family has snuck in to watch, she signs the words as she sings them and you know her love for song is as strong as her love for her family.

Poignant, uplifting, and timely. Coda is a much needed breath of fresh air to escape the COVID pandemic confines and reminds us that we can all strive to be better in a loving and compassionate way.

8.5 out of 10

Book Review: Almost Midnight by Rainbow Rowell

TL:DR – Young adult novel containing two short stories about connections and the changes we go through during our teenage years.

Summary (warning: spoiler)

The first short story titled ‘Midnights’ is about Margaret (nicknamed ‘Mags’) and Noel who are best friends. He remembers their first meeting on New Year’s Eve in 2011 where she saved his life. She doesn’t quite remember it that way, but every New Year’s Eve since then, Noel has tried to dance with Mags in celebration of this “life-saving event” before the final countdown to the New Year. And every year, Mags has politely declined and instead watched, from afar, Noel end up dancing with some other girl and kissing her when the clock strikes midnight.

On New Year’s Eve in 2014, Mags and Noel reunite after attending colleges in different states and not seeing each other for months. Noel finally convinces her to dance with him, but as it draws close to midnight, he gets whisked away to dance with another girl. Will this be another New Year’s Eve with the same outcome?

The second short story titled ‘Kindred Spirits’ is about a teenage girl named Elena; a die-hard fan of Star Wars who lines up for the midnight premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII) four days before it opens. She had expected a huge line of die-hard fans ready to do a week long celebration of Star Wars before the midnight screening. Instead, she meets only Troy and Gabe. Two others who are crazy enough to camp outside the theatre during the cold, winter nights.

With an over-protective mother checking up on her several times each day, Elena is determined to do this. Her step towards independence and making her own decisions, regardless of how foolish they may turn out to be. Will she make it through the four days sleeping outside on the hard ground? And more importantly how will she go to the toilet if she needs to pee at night?

Review

Rowell manages to balance sentimentality and sweetness in a way that isn’t overly romanticised, so it will appeal to young readers while also being a nostalgia trip for older ones.

In ‘Midnights’, she is able to capture the angst and wanting that comes from two friends attracted to each other but somewhat stuck in the friends zone. Neither quite being brave enough to walk out on a limb to see if their friendship can be something more. Told from the perspective of Mags, you can understand her hesitation when Noel appears to be carefree with his affection and is happy to share a New Year’s kiss with any girl that raises her eyebrows at him.

Mags is never quite sure whether Noel feels anything more than friendship towards her. Their first New Year’s Eve encounter revolving around Noel revealing to her that he has a severe allergy to tree nuts (and shellfish and strawberries…) as he asks her whether the cracker she’s holding with pesto and cream cheese has pine nuts in it. An amusing dialogue ensues where Mags successfully stops Noel from eating the cracker, pesto and cream cheese combo and thus ‘saving his life’ for another year.

Two subsequent New Year’s Eve parties later and Mags and Noel are friends at the hip, but his urging of her to dance with him before the clock strikes twelve always fails. Mind you, we know Noel wants to share his New Year’s kiss with Mags but Mags never gets up onto the dance floor with him, so he ends up snogging someone else. In truth, Noel sends out all the signals but Mags doesn’t act on them so one could argue she has only herself to blame for being stuck in the friends zone.

When the fourth New Year’s Eve rolls around and Mags finally relents and has a slow dance with Noel, he pretty much confesses he can’t live without her, and you think finally they will kiss. Instead, another girl grabs Noel away and Mags walks out of the house party not being able to bear witnessing Noel kissing another girl. When the countdown to midnight happens, Noel appears outside looking for her and viola Noel makes it clear that the only girl he wants to kiss is her.

Rowell does a clever bit of plot twisting at this point. When Noel and Mags kiss, Mags has totally forgotten that she has been eating Chex mix which contains cashews. Mags saves Noel again by getting Benadryl from his car to prevent him from swelling up like a balloon and being covered in hives. Thus, they live happily allergy-free ever after.

In ‘Kindred Spirits’, the story of Elena looking to camp out for the opening of Episode VII of Star Wars is surprisingly funny and heart warming. Rowell is cognisant of the fact that in 2015 when the sequel came out, people could just buy tickets online and guarantee themselves a seat. But this isn’t the point for Elena. She wants to line up with other die-hard fans and party for a week on all things Star Wars related. And she thinks there’ll be a massive gathering based on social media posts. However, what she discovers is that the line is compromised of only two other people.

Instead of a party, it feels like stranger danger and the scenes where Elena argues with her mother who keeps periodically checking up on her is very funny.

Troy and Gabe turn out to be Star Wars geeks and nothing more predatory and Elena slowly gets to know both of them.

What is clever about the story is that Gabe turns out to be Elena’s classmate, but because he is shy, quiet and keeps to himself and she has her own group of friends, she has never noticed him. Here we have a showing of different perspectives. Elena feels genuinely bad that she didn’t recognise Gabe, but Gabe says that’s fine because he wouldn’t expect her to notice him since she’s part of her own clique.

This raises Elena’s hackles who tries to convince Gabe that she’s just a nerd, but Gabe sees her as one of the ‘popular’ girls. The ensuing debate manages to change both their perspectives and the assumptions they made about the other.

Plus Gabe helps Elena survive the nights by finding a way for her to pee in a cup behind a dumpster while he hums loudly ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars. That’s the type of embarrassing experience that makes two people bond whether they want to or not.

The ending is quite funny and another clever twist by Rowell. When the midnight premiere finally arrives, Gabe and Elena are so excited, and they get prime seats being at the head of the line. As they sit together in the cinema, they comment on how wonderful their seats are. So warm and comfy and as the opening crawl begins, they end up… falling asleep.

When they wake, to their horror, they’ve slept through the whole thing, but all’s well that ends well because Gabe has bought extra tickets for a second screening ahead of time (yep, he’s a diehard fan alright) and ends up inviting Elena to go see it.

Overall, I preferred ‘Kindred Spirits’ over ‘Midnights’ only in that there was more humour and the scenes with the mother trying to convince her daughter, Elena, to come home were believable and comic.

Rowell does use some interesting turns of phrase in her writing. Some works better than others. Specifically in ‘Midnights’ she writes, ‘he smelled warm’ and then later writes, ‘he smelled like skin’.

I’m all for a good synaesthesia. For example, ‘a gravelly voice’, or ‘the warm colours of a painting’, or ‘that’s the smell of victory’.

But I’m not sure that ‘he smelled like skin’ works, especially given it is meant to be an intimate moment between Mags and Noel. Still, young adult readers will likely gloss over this.

The art of a short story is a tricky process, and Rainbow Rowell does an admirable job in capturing the essence of that period in your life when insecurities and awkwardness can be high. Sentimental without being overly sweet, Almost Midnight is an enjoyable enough read that will appeal to young readers and will have older ones walking down memory lane.

3 out of 5

Anime Review: Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun (2014)

TL;DR – Nozaki is a manga writer/artist who specialises in romance manga. He bases his material from observing his fellow students around him. Even though his monthly publication is a hit, he actually has no experience in dating or how to have a relationship.

Review (warning: spoilers)

In order to appreciate Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, you will need to understand the show’s silly title, which translates to “Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun”. The translation itself doesn’t provide much light, and you could be forgiven for thinking this is a harem anime based on the English-translated title.

In truth, the show is about a high-school manga artist and writer, Nozaki Umetarou, who works on a monthly shoujo manga series. For those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, shoujo manga are stories aimed at the teenage girl market and focuses extensively on romance and relationships.

But this is not a shoujo anime, rather this is a comedy about a bunch of characters that surround Nozaki from which he obtains inspiration from.

The show begins with a high-school girl named Sakura Chiyo, who is nervously trying to build up enough courage to ask Nozaki out because she has a crush on him. When she confronts him alone after class, she can barely get a word out without stuttering. Nozaki misinterprets her actions and thinks Sakura is after his autograph, so he gives one much to her confusion.

Through this initial mishap, Sakura learns that Nozaki is the creator and artist behind one of the most popular shoujo manga currently being published. And as the series unfolds, it is clear that what inspires a shoujo manga artist is not what you expect.

The comedy is generated from the colourful and eccentric characters that interact with Nozaki and Sakura throughout. And the humour is generally due to the reactions Sakura has when finding out what Nozaki and fellow students are really like.

For example:

  • Nozaki is actually clueless. For a guy behind one of the most popular romantic manga, he has little to no idea of how relationships work. He obtains his ideas and material from observing those he interacts around him.
  • Mikoto Mikoshiba is one of Nozaki’s assistants and also goes to the same high school. Mikoto attracts the eyes of many of the girls and shamelessly flirts with them, only to regret his actions afterwards and feels internally awkward. Mikoto is the primary inspiration for Nozaki’s leading female character.
  • Yuu Kashima is a popular drama student. Even though she is female, she’s incredibly handsome and has many female admirers. Not the brightest spark in the school but very athletic, Kashima is like a female jock. Her interactions with Hori Masayuki (president of the drama club) are very funny, as she is often hunted down by Hori for slacking off.

One can view this series in one of two ways. Either the whole show is ridiculous and the characters so unbelievable that you’ll make a solid pass, or you can accept the silliness and enjoy the absurdity.

One could view Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun with an astute eye and point out the fact that shoujo manga itself is romantic fantasy, and the series seeks to reveal to Sakura that relationships in the real world do not operate like that. However, I don’t know if it ever intended to be that clever. The supporting cast are all caricatures in a sense, exaggerating personality traits as a means to inspire Nozaki in his own fantastical (and often ridiculous) story-telling for his manga.

The animation is clean and appealing, and all the characters are quirky and amusing in their own way except… Nozaki.

Yes, the title character lacks any discernible appeal. While it is arguable that Sakura shares the screen as much as Nozaki, for a male lead, Nozaki is incredibly bland. His obsession with getting his manga published and complete disinterest in anything else makes his stoic demeanour a complete bore.

Yes, he’s tall and handsome, but his personality is so dull that my opinion on Sakura diminishes because I have no idea why she would put up with him. Even his acts of kindness towards her are to gain further material for his manga in some way. The guy is an imbecile and this is meant to be funny.

As a result, Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun never goes beyond being a comedy and never delves deeper to reveal what relationships are really about (and contrasting it against shoujo stories). Poor, suffering Sakura grabs your sympathy at first, but by the end you just want to tell her to find another guy that will treat her right.

5 out of 10

Movie Review: Death on the Nile (2022)

TL;DR – Kenneth Branagh gives Agatha Christie’s crime sleuth classic a 21st century makeover.

Review (warning: spoilers)

“There is a reason the heart is the organ given to love, you know. If it stops to rest, we die. And I won’t die alone, you can be sure of that.”

This line is spoken by Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), one of the many characters that has a motive to be hostile towards Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot).

Hostile enough to commit murder? Many have done so in the name of love. And it is this fine line that is the central theme in Death on the Nile based on the book of the same name by the Dame of crime fiction, Agatha Christie.

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as the titular detective, Hercule Poirot, and from the outset, it is clear, that Branagh dives into the role of Poirot with gusto and is passionate about the body of work generated by Christie. You would have to be, given this is the third adaption of Death on the Nile to the screen (the previous two being a television series in 2004 and a 1978 movie version directed by John Guillerman).

Enough time has passed that a revival of the material was due and though Branagh stays mostly true to the source, there is enough cinematic flair and a solid cast to allow the casual viewer to be enveloped by Poirot’s world of logic and deduction.

The tweaks that Branagh does in the film when compared to the novel add an element of noir that I found refreshing though others may view as taking some of the fun out of the Poirot story.

To point, we get to see a more human side to the Poirot character. From the opening scenes, a young Hercule is with a Belgian infantry unit in the trenches in No Man’s Land during World War I, and he is able to deduce the best time for a surprise attack. The attack succeeds but an explosion causes damage to his face. We then watch as he recovers in a camp with his fiancé nurse, Katherine, and we witness the love she has for him even though he is horribly scarred. She suggests he can grow a moustache to hide his scars, and thus the famous whiskers were born.

This sets the tone for a much deeper emotional Poirot portrayal as we then move forward to 1937 and have Poirot sitting in a London club watching a jazz-blues singer perform and being quite mesmerised by her.

This leads to another tweak in the form of Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) who in the movie is a jazz-blues singer but in the novel was a romance novelist. Her singing and the music enhances the noir feel as we watch a couple on the dance floor: Jacqueline and her fiancé Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). Their passion for each other is evident as their dirty dancing creates such heat between the pair that it is amazing that they don’t rip each other’s clothes off right then and there.

The owner of the club is the wealthy heiress, Linnet, who happens to be a childhood friend of Jacqueline. When Linnet comes waltzing in all femme fatale and Jacqueline introduces Simon to her, Jacqueline is initially oblivious to the magnetism between Linnet and her fiancé. That changes when Jacqueline encourages Simon to have a dance with her, and she suddenly sees that all the heat has transferred from her to Linnet.

Fast forward again and we’re now in Egypt. We learn that Simon has broken up with Jacqueline and is now marrying Linnet. Along with the newlyweds are a mixed assortment of characters who all ‘love’ Linnet , but also secretly harbour envy or jealousy in some form or another towards her.

This assortment includes:

  • Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand) – a doctor who was previously engaged with Jacqueline before she broke it off to marry Simon.
  • Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal) – Linnet’s cousin, who manages her accounts and has been embezzling her funds.
  • Louise Bourget (Rose Leslie) – Linnet’s personal maid, who was going to marry a man and subsequently quit her employment, but Linnet saw to breaking the engagement.

Several more characters round off the wedding party and all have a motive to dislike Linnet in some form or other.

To make matters worse, Jacqueline has been stalking Linnet and Simon. And though she has not shown any inclination to hurting Linnet, she keeps appearing wherever the couple are and watching them.

Poirot is brought on board primarily to try and keep Linnet safe. And as they board the Karnak, a luxurious paddle boat, to take the wedding party down the Nile river, you know it is only a matter of time before poor Linnet turns up dead.

The cinematography goes a little askew when everything is set in Egypt, but Branagh ensures your focus is on the characters and trying to piece the puzzle together as to who murdered Linnet.

What surprised me was Hercule Poirot’s normally cold calculations are taken an emotional hit in a couple of unexpected ways. The first comes from Salome’s adopted niece, Rosalie (Letitia Wright), during a confrontation that reveals Poirot’s appearance in Egypt was not solely at the request of Linnet. The second is from Bouc (Tom Bateman) who is Hercule’s friend and is in love and dating Rosalie.

This adds a much needed complexity to Hercule Poirot and Branagh is allowed to show an emotional range that normally would be walled off from the viewer.

While far from flawless (for example, Annette Benning plays the part of Euphemia, a famous painter and mother to Bouc and is sadly under utilised), Death on the Nile still has enough substance and style for mystery buffs to enjoy the ride. In the process, demonstrating that Agatha Christie’s work will stand the test of time.

7.5 out of 10

Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

TL:DR – Ryland Grace is on a suicide mission to save Earth.

Summary (warning: spoiler)

Ryland Grace wakes up in a bed with tubes connected to him and has no idea why. Nothing in the room is familiar, and a computerised voice asks him what is “two plus two”. His motor skills aren’t functioning fully, but he does manage (with difficulty) to respond with the correct answer.

Slowly, memories and events start coming back to him while he pieces together his location. He’s a junior middle school science teacher. Check that, he’s a passionate and devoted science teacher who worked previously as a molecular biologist and has an inquisitive and sharp mind, and he observes that when an object falls in the room he is in, it strikes him as unusual. He starts using his understanding of physics and does a series of tests and calculates that the gravity in his room is greater than that of Earth’s gravity. However, Earth’s gravity is constant, which means only one thing: he isn’t on earth.

As he gathers more information, along with returning memories, he realises he has been in an induced coma, undertaking interstellar travel to Tau Ceti (another solar system). Why? Because he is on a mission to solve the mystery behind an alien microbe called Astrophage that is absorbing the sun’s light energy. If Astrophage continues unchecked, it will spell the doom of Earth as the sun will die out and all life will enter an ice age that will lead to extinction.

He and two other astronauts are flying to another solar system because they have detected Astrophage around the Tau Ceti sun there. The difference being that the Tau Ceti sun is not dimming. If they can figure out why then perhaps Earth’s sun and humanity can be saved.

Oh, and along with piecing his memory back together, Ryland Grace has another problem… his two fellow astronauts are dead.

Review

Okay, I’ll say it outright. Project Hail Mary is the best book I have read so far this year. Andy Weir has done something that I can only dream of doing as a writer. Not only has he written an engrossing, page-turning science fiction novel, he has made me dream of becoming a scientist. Regardless of whether all the scientific concepts and ideas he conveys in Project Hail Mary is plausible (and I believe that they are), he does something that few authors are able to do.

One, he balances science talk with the plot. While there is a lot of science talk, he makes it accessible and conveys it in a way that we can understand even if we don’t have a degree in theoretical physics, or molecular biology, or any of the other science specialties explored in this story.

Two, caring about the characters is critical in any story, and Weir does that beautifully. But he also makes you care about the science, which is a rare feat. Because it is the science that becomes its own ‘character’. Science is the connection between Ryland Grace and Rocky (more on Rocky in a moment), and it is science that drives the suspense and tension in the story rather than spaceships blasting lasers at each other.

Three, throughout Project Hail Mary there is an infusion of humour that makes a considerable impact and elevates a read that could have been a depressing slog mired in tragedy.

The story mixes flashbacks of how and why Ryland ends up on the Hail Mary ship and while the basic premise is that he is humanity’s last hope for survival, the true joy of the novel is his interactions with Rocky.

So, who is Rocky? He is an alien from another planet, and his home world is orbiting a sun in another solar system also infected by Astrophage. He is on the same mission as Ryland and appears like a spider-type creature. Weir does a wonderful job making their initial interactions believable, and as they learn to communicate (which in itself is a clever bit of writing by Weir), they develop a friendship that transcends well… species.

Rocky is a genius engineer on his planet and combined with Ryland’s scientific know-how, the pair seek to unravel the mysteries of Astrophage and why it is attacking their respective home world suns. As their communication becomes more sophisticated, their banter is truly laugh out loud at times, and you want both of them to survive by story’s end.

And this is the driving force of the story. Yes, the extinction of humanity hangs in the balance. Yes, unraveling the mystery and finding a solution to the Astrophage invasion is critical to the plot. But it is the friendship between Ryland and Rocky, and the question mark as to whether they will survive that will make you turn every page.

Project Hail Mary is a story launched into the stratosphere and scores a touch down for all readers.

5 out of 5

Anime Review: Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

TL;DR – When three homeless citizens of Tokyo discover an abandoned baby in a back alley, a chain reaction of events is triggered revealing their lives and regrets. And quite possibly a path to redemption.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Like many of the largest cities in the world, Tokyo is a place where those that wish to disappear can do so with barely anyone batting an eyelid. And if you’re the homeless then you end up invisible and forgotten trying to survive on the streets.

Stories about the homeless are generally sombre affairs, so I was somewhat hesitant to pick up Tokyo Godfathers. If you ever watched Grave of the Fireflies, then you will understand what I mean. But I have to say that Satoshi Kon’s film is not only full of surprises, but it also conveys a sense of hope that is not mired in saccharine ideas of what constitutes a ‘happy family’.

To point, there is no such thing as a ‘happy family’. Families are messy, relationships can be filled with emotional struggles that can result in drastic (and often tragic) choices. But families can also be filled with a sense of love, understanding and forgiveness that comes about through genuine connection (and often struggle).

Such is the story in Tokyo Godfathers which introduces us to Gin (an alcoholic), Hana (a transgender woman), and Miyuki (a runaway teenage girl). Their humanity, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and histories of how they ended up living on the streets of Tokyo are slowly brought to light for the viewer as the film progresses.

Set on Christmas Eve, our trio are rummaging through garbage only to discover an abandoned baby that they name Kiyoko. The elements of dark humour, mainly through the banter and interactions of our trio, will draw you in as we watch them fumble and debate what to do with baby Kiyoko. The sensible decision is to deliver the baby to the police, but instead Hana insists on keeping the newborn and finding her parents.

The story moves along through a series of coincidences that one can only construe as fated and results in many revelations about our trio’s past.

We learn that Miyuki ran away because her policeman father was overbearing, and when her cat went missing, she believed it was her father that got rid of it. This resulted in a violent altercation where Miyuki stabbed him and then ran away. She now feels she can never return home.

Hana used to work at a club as a singer and became violent towards a drunken patron when he criticised how awful her singing was. She then quit and left with her lover, Ken, but when he died from slipping on a bar of soap (I kid you not) she found herself on the streets.

Initially, Gin tells Hana and Miyuki that his wife and daughter are dead. This turns out to be a lie. He had a gambling problem and drove his family into debt. Ashamed he ran away even though his wife and daughter tried unsuccessfully for several years to find him.

Along with our trio, we learn about the many broken lives and families that are somehow intertwined with them or with baby Kiyoko. This becomes a central motif. Tokyo Godfathers is not only a film about people without homes but also people without families. And how Gin, Hana and Miyuki come to be a family unit in their own right even if they argue, bicker and, at times, hate each other.

Coincidences throughout this film are intentional, and a way to show that whether we know it or not, we are all connected in some way by the thinnest of threads.

The funny and dark comic moments (the scenes where Hana gets a taxi driver to pursue a truck stolen by a woman who has Kiyoko is hilarious) are offset by depictions of humanity’s failings towards the homeless. For example, there is one scene where Gin gets beaten up by a bunch of teenagers just for kicks. Another where the three are on a train and all the other passengers are holding their noses because of the stink and attempting to ignore them.

The story is packed full of threads that all eventually tie together in the end, even if its a ragged tapestry as opposed to a beautiful quilt. In a way, the film is all the better because of its imperfections.

As I watched Tokyo Godfathers, there’s a real Cowboy Bebop feel to the animation. The characters especially are not your stereotype big-eyed anime characters but are grounded more in realism. Yet, there are scenes that are distinctly anime and are very well done. For example, when Hana lets loose at Gin in front of his estranged daughter about all his lies, her expressions are priceless. Viewers have to pay attention as much to the background and surroundings as they do the main characters.

Complex, rich in detail in both plot and animation, and a totally quirky Christmas tale that will have you believing in miracles that aren’t shaped as sugar cubes or tied up in a bow. It has been a while since an anime flick has surprised me as much as this one.

9.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Stowaway (2021)

TL;DR – Three astronauts on a mission to Mars discover an accidental stowaway. This wouldn’t be a problem except the stowaway permanently damaged the CO2 scrubbers on the ship. Without the scrubbers there isn’t enough oxygen to support all four crew.

Review (warning: spoilers)

There are no aliens aboard the ship looking to kill the crew. There is not an artificial intelligence that becomes ‘evil’ and starts manipulating the humans to turn on each other. There are no lightsabers, and this is not the Millennium Falcon that can hyperjump from one planet to another. If you are expecting any of these sci-fi elements then Stowaway is not the movie for you.

Instead, Stowaway seeks to be grounded in actual science (or at least, theoretical science) and uses all the real threats of outer space to demonstrate the dangers of space travel. A suitable balance is achieved between plot progression and explaining the mechanics of the crew’s ship and the physics of space to allow the watcher to be absorbed.

Our intrepid crew is comprised of Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). The purpose of their mission is to make the two-year round trip to the colony on Mars to cultivate David’s algae and plants on the red planet before returning home.

The opening scene throws us right into the thick of it as we sit in the cockpit with the crew as they lift off. The turbulence and the amount of g-force they experience is captured on screen and on the crew’s expressions as they climb altitude and eventually break the earth’s atmosphere. It is an absorbing bit of film making as you will feel every rattle of your bones inside your body and find it difficult to keep your breath steady.

A lovely bit of physics and aeronautical engineering is then shown as the main rocket booster known as the ‘Kingfisher’ detaches with 450m long cables that are connected to the ship’s main hull and a tethered gravity spin is initiated. I’m no physicist but I understand the basic premise is that to achieve artificial gravity in space, the ship containing the crew is spun around a central axis (i.e., the main hull) and a counterweight (i.e., the Kingfisher) spins on the other end. Again, the cinematography of this sequence is brilliant and even experienced astronauts can succumb to the inertia as depicted by David who proceeds to throw up extensively into his vomit bag.

Everything goes smoothly until Marina discovers an engineer, Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) unconscious inside a part of the ship that houses the CO2 scrubber. How he managed to survive take-off is anyone’s guess, and it’s not clear how he could have been unaccounted for before the launch.

The movie could have then gone one of two ways. It could have turned into a dark psychological thriller with the audience unsure if Michael stowed away intentionally and is looking to sabotage the mission for reasons only he knows. Or it could be a genuine accident and now the crew of four have to figure out how to move forward. Thankfully, it is the latter (I didn’t want to watch another Event Horizon horror sci-fi unfold), and the driving dilemma that they confront is the CO2 scrubbers have been damaged beyond repair and there is only enough oxygen for three people.

Check that, there is only enough oxygen for two people to make the journey to Mars. But an unreliable solution is created to support three when David sacrifices all his algae and plant research to try and have them act as ‘scrubbers’. The story then becomes one of sacrifice and the varying views of the crew on what to do. They have ten days (which in itself is a margin of error and puts the entire crew at risk) to figure out if there is a way to save Michael.

Zoe and David have differing, but no less empathetic, views. When Michael is told by David the full situation, Michael understands that he needs to be the one to make the sacrifice. However, Zoe convinces him to hold on to hope.

In a last ditch effort, Zoe and David risk traversing the tethers to the Kingfisher to try and salvage oxygen from the tanks contained within. Commander Marina can’t do it because earlier in the film when she discovers Michael in the ceiling, he falls on her arm breaking it. So, now she’s in a cast and has no way of doing the job herself.

Zoe and David manage to get one tank of oxygen. They need two to have enough for all four of them to survive the trip to Mars, but a solar flare warning sounds and they are forced to rush back before the storm hits them with its deadly radiation.

In their haste, Zoe’s descent back to the ship is too fast and she loses the one tank of oxygen. It’s a devastating moment as they are now back to square one. Whatever oxygen is in the Kingfisher is now leaking out, and no one knows how long the solar flare storm will last.

The crew sit together, emotionally wrung dry and distraught, and mentally willing for some sort of miracle. But there is none. In space, there cannot be mistakes, and unfortunately, this mission has been riddled with them.

Zoe makes the ultimate sacrifice and ends up traversing the tethers once more to get one remaining tank of oxygen knowing it’s a suicide mission. The scene is almost magical as solar rays rush over her in waves, but we know in fact that Zoe is being bombarded by enough radiation that she cannot possibly survive.

The film ends with her depositing the oxygen tank for the other three and then sitting outside the ship, her breathing becoming more shallow, her suit slowly being burnt by the rays, and her sight focused on the tiny red dot that is Mars.

The audience has to make their own conclusion as to whether Marina, David and Michael make it as the credits roll. It is all a dire affair and more a shoestring sci-fi film than a full blown story such as The Martian or Interstellar.

I enjoyed the film primarily because of the stunning cinematography and special effects along with the humanity of the characters. This is a story of survival and when viewed from that lens, it delivers.

8 out of 10

Book Review: Sin City (Volume 7) – Hell and Back by Frank Miller

TL;DR – Wallace makes the most of a cool night by getting out of the city and heading for the hills. Driving along the empty roads, top down, wind in his hair, it’s as close to serenity as he has felt in a while. But it’s all cut short when he spies a woman atop a cliff looking very much like she’s going to jump without a parachute.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Go to my book reviews page to read reviews of previous volumes of this Eisner award winning series.

Esther stands overlooking the ocean, beneath the moon and contemplates suicide. Her attempt at ending her life is foiled by a good Samaritan named Wallace after he dives into the waters to rescue her. Wallace takes her back to his apartment and there she recovers, the pair developing an instant connection through one saving the life of the other.

They head to a bar to bond over a drink. Esther learns that Wallace is an ex-Navy SEAL and was awarded a medal of honour. Esther no longer contemplates suicide, not when her knight in shining armour is right in front of her. And even though a part of Wallace wants to know why she tried to kill herself, she holds him back with her allure and her lips.

As they kiss, a shot rings through the night and hits Wallace square in the neck, not a bullet but a tranquiliser. Before he falls unconscious, he sees Esther taken away kicking and screaming by two men in an ambulance.

When Wallace wakes up, there’ll be hell to pay.

Review

Sin City (Volume 7) – Hell and Back is the final volume in Frank Miller’s epic Sin City collection. As a book end that completes the series, Frank Miller thanks his readers by creating a dense volume full of his signature black and white art and a story with enough mystery and tension to take you to the final page. A suitable end that testifies to Miller’s mastery of the crime noir genre.

His previous works, Sin City (Volume 6) – Booze, Broads & Bullets was a much slimmer volume, but if you paid attention to the short stories in volume 6 then they tie in brilliantly with volume 7.

Specifically, the hitwoman, Delia seen in several short stories in volume 6, plays a key role in this one as a femme fatale looking to seduce Wallace before slicing his throat. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

After Wallace wakes up from the tranquiliser, he spends a night in a jail cell when cops pick him up thinking he’s a drug addict. When Wallace gets out, he starts piecing together his memory and gathers clues to hunt down Esther.

The story flips between the two as we see Esther confronted by the Colonel, a captain within the Wallenquist organisation, and who trains women to become assassins including blue-eyed Delia.

The Colonel wants to transform Esther into one of his hitwomen as well. But the Colonel receives word that Wallace is on the hunt, so he sends Delia and his men to take him out.

Wallace discovers Delia in Esther’s apartment. Delia pretends to be a struggling actress who lives with Esther sharing the rent. When the hitmen come calling, they give the appearance that they’re after Delia (just as they kidnapped Esther) but Wallace makes short work of them, and thus finds himself now protecting Delia while trying to find Esther.

It creates wonderful tension as you, the reader, will be screaming at Wallace not to trust Delia. And for once, Delia’s succubus charms fail to work on a man, and Wallace sees through her façade.

As the body count racks up, Wallace is put through a number of ordeals including being injected with a cocktail of drugs. Only his Navy SEAL training allows him to work through the hallucinations. Miller breaks his modus operandi by illustrating the hallucinogenic events extensively in colour. Previously, he would use colour only sparingly to identify certain characters (e.g. yellow for Roark Junior’s skin in Sin City (Volume 4) – That Yellow Bastard and blue for Delia’s eyes).

In my opinion, the coloured pages do not work, and this is probably the biggest criticism I have for volume 7. It was a brave move by Miller, but it doesn’t come off and detracts from the artwork overall. When finally Wallace gets the drugs out of his system and the world is viewed again in black and white, it is far more effective.

The story, while containing enough momentum to see you through to the end, also flags a little in the final third. Wallace discovers that the Colonel is also operating an organ harvesting ring, and this is meant to add an additional layer of shock to the story.

Miller could have punched us in the gut by making Wallace discover true hell and have the Colonel end up killing Esther and harvesting her organs. But then Wallace would have been to hell and never come back, which would go against the volume’s title. Suffice to say, it is enough that Wallace uncovers this horrific operation and inflicts enough collateral damage that the Colonel agrees to handover Esther in exchange for Wallace’s silence.

Of course, Wallace knows it’s all a setup and the Colonel will betray him, so the necessary fail safes are put in place to ensure Wallace and Esther escape unharmed and the Colonel gets his final comeuppance.

Mind you the Colonel’s timely demise comes from an unexpected quarter. The man who ends up disposing of the Colonel is Commissioner Liebowitz, the head of the Basin City police department, who is introduced as the Colonel’s puppet and initially betrays Wallace who reports Esther’s kidnapping.

As Wallace and Esther drive off into the sunset, Esther finally reveals why she attempted suicide. The simple reason was that she felt alone. Wallace makes one final remark about Basin City (aka Sin City):

“That rotten town: those it can’t corrupt, it soils. Those it can’t soil, it kills. That rotten town. Miles behind us now. Fading into memory. A bright day dawns…”

Thus, closes the final chapter on Frank Miller’s Sin City.

The pick of the bunch for me is still Sin City (Volume 1) – The Hard Goodbye and Sin City (Volume 4) – That Yellow Bastard.

And while Sin City (Volume 7) Hell and Back doesn’t punch you in the gut, it is still good to know that even Frank Miller has a sense of hope.

3.5 out of 5.

Anime Review: Komi Can’t Communicate (2021)

TL;DR – Komi enters high school and immediately is the admiration and envy of every school student and teacher. She exudes an aura that causes everyone to be put in awe simply by walking into a room. The only problem is she suffers from severe social anxiety disorder.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Hitohito Tadano is average in every way. All he wants to do is get through high school without causing waves. But when he discovers in class, he is sitting next to Komi Shouko, a female student that has everyone enraptured, he becomes the lightning rod for jealousy as everyone vies for Komi’s attention.

However, Komi has her own inner struggle. She freezes and is unable to speak whenever anyone tries to talk to her or gives her attention. People interpret her social anxiety in different ways. All of them wrong.

Some interpret her silence as an ice queen views her subjects, they adore her stoic beauty and serve her willingly. Others view her silence as they are not even worthy to be in her presence and suitably scamper away after attempts at conversation with her. In virtually all circumstances, she is viewed as a goddess beyond the reach of mere mortals, and this is humorously reinforced in one episode where initially she is nominated for class president, but then everyone in her class interprets her silence that the title of class president being beneath her and instead coin her as ‘god’.

The only person that is able to get to the heart of the matter is Tadano. In the first episode, after class has finished, Tadano and Komi find themselves as the last to leave, and what starts off as an awkward exchange by writing messages on the blackboard with chalk, ends up being a confession by Komi explaining her extreme social anxiety, and how deeply she actually wants to make friends and be able to communicate.

Tadano vows to help her make one hundred friends.

As a comedy, the series reaches the point of ludicrous due to the exaggerated reactions from Komi and her classmates. Each character has extreme traits, which downplays Komi’s social anxiety disorder. A sample of the outlandish cast includes:

  • Ren Yamai whose obsession with Komi borders on the pathological, and at one point, she kidnaps Tadano who she believes is getting to close to Komi and looks like she is going to kill him and bury him in the woods.
  • Himiko Agari who is also an anxious girl like Komi but has a masochistic side to her and wants to be Komi’s pet ‘dog’. She also has a didactic (almost religious level) of knowledge when it comes to ramen (i.e. the best places to eat it, the rules and etiquette to ramen etc.)
  • Makeru Yadano who sees Komi as her rival and wants to best her in all things. This includes an eye sight test where Yadano believes Komi is cheating because she is not answering out loud (Yadano doesn’t realise that Komi is using hand gestures and can’t see them because she is standing behind Komi).
  • Najimi Osana who actually attempted to be Komi’s friend during childhood but interpreted her silence as standoffish. Najimi has a tendency to switch genders. Flashbacks show Najimi wearing boy clothing but in high school wears a girls uniform.

The only ‘normal’ person is Tadano in that he is average in every way. But we learn that this is intentional because in junior high he pretended to be a ‘cool kid’ but realised that everyone thought it was cringey.

All in all, Komi Can’t Communicate has some touching moments but does not go as deep as some of the more magical slice-of-life animes that I have seen such as Usagi Drop, Non Non Biyori, and Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai.

It seeks to insert more humour at the expense of depth, which I found watchable if silly. The end result is that this anime could have explored social anxiety disorders with much more emotional punch but instead takes a safe route to be more comic.

6.5 out of 10

Movie Review: The Adam Project (2022)

TL;DR – To prevent a dystopian future, Adam time travels to the past to alter the future by destroying the creation of time travel. Yeah, don’t think about it too much.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Storyline aside, The Adam Project is a Ryan Reynolds vehicle, so if you enjoy his schtick then you won’t be disappointed. Reynolds is typecast and delivers his one-liners in a way that borders on boring for the actor. There are moments where you feel that he is going through the motions knowing the formula works, but one will wonder if he secretly desires a role that is far removed from his comic persona.

The added bonus for those who enjoy Reynolds humour is he plays an adult Adam who time travels into the past and ends up working with a 12-year old version of himself (played by Walker Scobell). Scobell does an admirable job of delivering his smart mouth dialogue in the same way as Reynolds. The chemistry between the pair is evident and results in an enjoyable albeit nothing-earth-shattering adventure.

The story runs similar lines to other time travelling films such as Back to the Future and Terminator. In 2050, the world has turned into a technological nightmare ruled by Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener). Adam travels back in time to try and save his wife, Laura (Zoe Saldana), who apparently died on a mission in 2018. Adam is chased by Sorian only to end up in 2022, not 2018.

There he encounters his 12-year old self and his mother, Ellie Reed (Jennifer Garner). Both are mourning, in their own way, Adam’s scientist father, Louis Reed (Mark Ruffalo) who had died recently in a car accident.

What adult Adam discovers is that Sorian has messed with time by going back into the past herself to guarantee she will obtain full control over the time travelling technology. Laura had also discovered Sorian’s manipulations and Sorian wants her dead. And while Laura prevents any assassination attempt on her life, she ends up being stranded in the past due to her time travelling ship being destroyed.

Laura tells Adam that he needs to jump back to 2018 and destroy the time travelling technology, which just so happens had been invented by Adam’s scientist father, Louis. More time jumps occur, Louis helps both Adams in preventing Sorian achieving ultimate control and together they successfully destroy the technology. The dystopian future never occurs and both Adams magically disappear and return to their original times.

The emotional pull is meant to be within the Reed family. Relationship angst between young Adam and her mother, adult Adam and his father, and even between adult Adam and young Adam as the pair play psychologist for each other throughout the film. Love, sacrifice, and forgiveness are the eventual lessons learned and required in order to heal from any pent up pain and hurt from Louis’s death.

The CGI and action is glossy and well done though feels it is there to satisfy the action fans. The lightsaber-that-is-not-a-lightsaber used by adult Adam in a variety of creative ways to defeat his enemies is probably the highlight in terms of action sequences. The time travelling spaceships and chases are less so.

Sadly, Garner, Ruffalo and Saldana are seriously underused and Keener’s Sorian is painfully one-dimensional as the technology tyrant that wants to the rule the world (why? because a younger Sorian chose to give up any attempt at finding love or develop meaningful relationships, so the only path for her was tyrannical leader of the world… makes sense, right?)

Like I said, this is a Ryan Reynolds vehicle, so it lives and dies with him. Walker Scobell does showcase his acting skills and will be one to watch in future films. But other than these two, the supporting cast is wasted.

A light and airy sci-fi affair that has laughs for the Reynolds fans, a story that isn’t earth-shattering and action that won’t have the blood pumping.

5 out of 10