Fast and Furious 8 ****

As much as we all miss the late Paul Walker as the all-American boy Brian in the car-chasing series, Episode 8 proves the franchise hangs on muscle – in the human and auto sense, driven by Vin Diesel’s camp posturing as car nut Dom Toretto. It has even bigger biceps as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson flexes the ever-expanding pecks again as law-enforcing Hobbs. But as Toretto always says, it’s ‘family’ that keeps it together and the momentum on track once more, in more wittier ways than before.

When mysterious cyber villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) forces Toretto to join ranks with her against his ‘car family’ of wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Ludacris) and newbie member Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), the merry band join forces with Hobbs and unlikely ally, former nemesis Deckard (Jason Statham) to find rogue Toretto and stop him in his tracks. The question is what hold does Cipher have over him?

The latest saga has all the required throbbing engines, nubile ladies wearing ‘belts’ as skirts, sneers and jeers and testosterone-fuelled racing to prove a point that any fan expects. It also has the gravity-defying stunts, including the series’ most crackers one yet that involves breaking ice and Russian military hardware. Director F. Gary Gray is new to the F&F directing chair, but has stayed loyal to the franchise’s style that there is no obvious difference this time.

With a nice subtle nod to Brian when Toretto goes AWOL, the rest of the characters behave as billed – even Toretto in his new compromised position. The actor, who steals every scene he’s in though, is Statham – drawing on his comical turn in Spy (2015) and a blend of his Transporter/Expendables/Mechanic/Crank roles all in one gravelly delivery. The actor is certainly getting softer in his old age, the hard edges to his characters smoothening out – even with Deckard. Strangely, you will grow fond of him in the end.

Fans can expect a couple of old faces popping up throughout from previous escapades too – they just refuse to go away, nicely illustrating previous plots’ relevance to current events, so there is a lot of thrills to be had there, in addition to the collateral damage.

Get on board again for the ride with Version 8. Expect nothing new, just bigger, dafter ballsier fun with egos the size of tanks on the loose. This latest film just adds more fuel to the saga’s tank and keeps it running. Paul, you’d be proud.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Smurfs: The Lost Village ****

From The Hobbit’s Shire to the Smurfs’ mushroom village, big and small kids love the idea of a place of serenity, harking back to simpler living. Ironically, defending territory from an external ‘terror’ threat by those wanting to change an existence strikes a chord in today’s unsettled world – one way to use Smurfs: The Lost Village to explain world affairs to curious little minds. So, however simple in plot the new Smurfs film first seems, it does combine in one story a positive sense of self-preservation with a healthy dollop of adventure, all for the benefit of kiddies in glorious multicolour with intrepid gnome explorers. It also attempts to shine the spotlight on Smurfette and mould her (pardon the pun) into a lead character in her own right.

Voiced by Demi Lovato, Smurfette is still trying to figure out what her unique skill is, four years on from the second film, and where she fits in in the Smurfs’ world? A chance encounter with a masked stranger in the forbidden forest and a map leads the only girl gnome and her best buddies, Brainy (Danny Pudi voices), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) and Hefty (Joe Manganiello), on an adventure to find a lost village. However, Smurfette has unwittingly led the Smurfs’ sworn enemy Gargamel (voiced by Rainn Wilson) and his beastly crew to the new location – and an untapped source of ‘blue power’ the sorcerer needs to be invincible. It’s up to Smurfette and co to warn the residents before it’s too late.

This time creator Peyo’s Smurfs are re-immersed in their own animated existence – no real-world shenanigans like in the 2013 film or creepy-looking ‘human-featured Smurfs’. Sadly, this also means no Hank Azaria in panto as Gargamel – nor in voice, though Wilson is just as entertaining. It does mean the filmmakers have full creative licence to explore the Avatar-styled world, equally bathed in blue. This film bounces along with 100 per cent enthusiasm and is very much about the gnome personalities, the introduction of which at the beginning wastes no time in reeling off a list of character traits in fun-filled, erratic fashion that younger viewers delight at. The rest of the frenetic pace follows suit, as expected with present-day kids animation.

As the momentum roller-coasters on – requiring a certain degree of concentration, as not to miss any ‘adult puns’, there is plenty of silliness, honesty, vulnerability, bravery and morals for kids to latch onto, absorb and ultimately cheer on their diminutive heroes. Admittedly, some of the funnier scenarios are touched on in the trailer, but the little personalities more than make up for this. Indeed, curiosity pays off as we’re all rewarded with plenty of ‘girl power’ in the end – hardly surprising given the writers are women and the scope for potential storyline spin-offs (and merchandise) could run on for years to come.

The fact is youngsters delight in the idea of little people saving the day in their narratives. The Lost Village delivers this thrill, with a few hiccups along the way. There’s also a nostalgic animated innocence to the whole affair that helps the Smurf personalities shine through – something the very busy, effects-heavy 2013 film lost. Smurfs: the Lost Village even has scampering dayglow bunnies, ready for Easter family viewing. There’s enough cinematic cuteness for everyone; if the plight of Smurfette doesn’t win you over, the bunnies will, while keeping the youngsters entertained for 90 minutes.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

Follow on Twitter

Within ***

Logic needs to be thrown completely out of the window when watching creepfest Within. It’s directed by Phil Claydon of Lesbian Vampire Killers fame – the 2009 B-movie about lesbian vampires enslaving a village’s womenfolk, only for unlikely heroes James Corden and Mathew Horne to come along and save the day. Indeed, this was well before Corden conquered Tinseltown with his celebrity carpools.

The point is to aim ‘middle-ish’ with Within and there’s enough entertainment and ‘look away now’, jumpy bits to be had. In fact, the whole premise is nicely spun along, namely guessing whether the sinister situation is ‘living’ or ‘supernatural’ in cause. The Alexanders (Michael Vartan, Nadine Velazquez and Erin Moriarty) move neighbourhood to a new house whose occupants have long gone, leaving a garage full of memories. Youngest member Hannah (Moriarty) has been grounded after a teenage party, and is given the task of clearing the boxes, all under the leering gaze of creepy locksmith neighbour Ray Walsh (Ronnie Gene Blevins). However, while home alone, she begins to notice things out of place, noises from the attic and pictures falling off walls. What happened to the last residents? The Alexanders are soon to find out.

Within unashamedly takes effective bits from other horror classics but never attempts to reinvent the wheel. It feels like a carbon copy of many a modern American suburban ‘haunting’, complete with a good-looking cast in Moriarty, Velazquez, Blake Jenner and Vartan (‘groom-in-the-middle’ Kevin from Monster-in-Law). There is even the horror obsession with youthfulness, with voyeuristic ‘spying’ shots through a crack in Hannah’s bedroom door.

Captain Fantastic’s Moriarty is our guide as the mystery unfolds, bizarrely unfazed by strange occurrences and noises – like closet doors creaking open. Moriarty is convincing enough, though her character feels as restricted in her acting as she is in her movements while grounded. Things happen by numbers in this horror game, until we get to a Paranormal Activity filming scene that ramps up the dread and injects new terror into proceedings. This is when the film gets interesting.

Once reality takes hold though, believability wanes because you question how a family living within these flimsy MDF four walls wouldn’t begin to smell a rat (or body)? Admittedly, to keep up the reality-supernatural question means suspension of common-sense. Like all such horrors, as soon as the culprit is found out, things escalate at frightening speed, as though filmmakers Claydon and co are keen to get to the finale when they could have lulled us back into a false sense of security and really played with our minds. There was ample scope to do this and be clever about it.

That said, Within does stay faithful to its genre and delivers the goods for fans of home hauntings. Indeed, there are two simultaneous threats that you know will converge; the question is when? This is the only ‘difference’ to the norm. There is even an eyebrow-raising ‘fact’ in the end credits that’s designed to give substance to what Claydon and co have delivered. As a generic, ‘leap out of your seat’, popcorn-spilling offering at the cinema, Within ticks all the boxes – just don’t expect to be challenged any further.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

John Wick: Chapter 2 ****

If you could ‘feel sorry’ for an assassin, John Wick would be one such case. Desperate to get out of the deadly profession, he just keeps being dragged back into it. Keanu Reeves on the other hand – who again stars in the title role – is more than happy to revive this troubled brute who makes Rambo’s bodycount look pitiful. Reeves/Wick makes a welcome return in Chapter 2, not losing any of his previous appeal or looking worse for wear. There is also a dog in this one, but the situation has changed so animal lovers can breathe a sigh of relief.

This time, Wick is asked to repay a debt by crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), which involves a hit very close to home. The trouble for John is carrying out this request puts a global bounty on his head and will have him shuned from the decadent criminal underworld network – managed by Winston (Ian McShane) – he enjoys protection in. However, a debt is a debt, and John Wick must obey the code of honour.

This feels more ‘Bond’ in production and style than the first film, which had a grittier, edgier crime caper feel. It still has its colourful gloomy scenes but the global trek feels more akind to a 007 storyline, which is not necessary a bad thing. Chapter 2 boasts the same writer (Derek Kolstad) and director (Chad Stahelski who co-ordinated Reeves’s stunt on The Matrix), which also gives the character and the story some much needed continuity. Indeed, Kolstad came up with the character so it’s good to see he hasn’t abandoned him – there is talk of a third escapade anyway.

Reeves plays emotionally distant characters exceptionally well. John Wick works because he is a man full of secrets trying to redeem himself, while acting like a wounded animal on a self-defence mission. All of this is played out in an environment that does not take itself too seriously, with glimmers of deadpan humour mixed with a campness that certain Bond films enjoy. With a stunt co-ordinator in the director’s chair, the hand-to-hand combat sequences are exhilarating and commendable alone. There is a gaming sense behind the action, although without first-person play available, so it widens the target audience.

The motivation to kill is a simple one to grasp – there is no convoluted plot. Hence, this all ties in nicely with what John Wick’s strengths are; rawness, honesty, survival and loyalty. This is clearly what makes the series popular. Trying to cloud this are the mysteries and lore surrounding the ‘brotherhood’, though Kolstad gives fans more to chew on this time, but still leaving more for us to ponder over too. When John meets Winston at the end, it’s just like something out of The Matrix – even Laurence ‘Morpheus’ Fishburne stars in this film as a resistance-type character to add to the thrill. More questions upon questions feed an ongoing saga. At the same time, Wick dispenses with undesirables, even those higher up the food chain.

John Wick is another triumph for Reeves, just like Neo, with the same movie mileage, as Wick uncovers yet another underworld cancer that needs removing while trying to buy closure. Chapter 2 is every bit as satisfying and thrilling. Wick has to come back again for a hat-trick, if only to finish the job – a happy thought indeed.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter