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

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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

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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

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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

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The Lego Batman Movie ****

For those worried the Batman might lose his clipped, gravel-toned, conceited edge after the success of The Lego Movie (2014), fear not: Will Arnett gives his little black-clad Lego character an even bigger presence once again in an equally funny but far darker film, The Lego Batman Movie.

Bruce Wayne – aka Batman – must deal not only with Gotham City’s criminals and arch enemy The Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), but also a new police commissioner (Barbara Gordon, voiced by Rosario Dawson) with different ideas to his own crime-busting and an orphan child he ‘forgets’ he’s adopted (voiced by Michael Cera). Is Batman going soft in his old age, and will he and his long-suffering butler and ‘surrogate dad’ Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) finally get the family unit they crave?

While Batman revels in his notoriety on screen, DC and Marvel aficionados are thrilled by the blatant mockery of the Batman-related characters from over the years, accumulating in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight versions (for example, Bane). While the first half hour of the film is sheer glee for the adults, the kids are equally thrilled by the whirling colour, jarring movement and crackers pace as they see the Lego come alive. It’s a win-win for family entertainment this half term.

However, be warned: there are some very dark moments and characters in peril that might upset younger viewers. That said everything else is fairly tame, as expected with Lego, so there is no guts and gore, but little bricks flying all over the place. Kids will always love the explosions and mayhem, as adults marvel at the evolving creativity in front of them. A lot of the best lines are in the trailer, such as why does the flying Batmobile only have one seat? Answer: last time Batman checked he only had one butt. However, there are plenty more scattered around the film to enjoy, so you are either continually smirking or laughing throughout. That’s not to say there are not flatter moments where the same jokes are over-peddled, having seen their sell-by date, but the momentum is so erratic, you are propelled onto the next scenario to truly care.

Also, from a family perspective, there are morals aplenty to subconsciously be embedded in your little one’s psyche. This film is all about the importance not only of family and not being able to do it all on your own, but also (eventually) mutual respect – so important in today’s political environment. However, you don’t feel like you’re being bombarded with condescending messages like in some Disney flicks to the point of nausea. Little orphan Dick – who becomes ‘pantless’ Robin – is so adorably chirpy and excitable that you can’t help but be swept up in his gratitude as Batman gives him a chance in life. Of course, there are lots of delicious moments to savour as Batman tries to adapt to fatherhood while Alfred tries to control his ward’s inner child – cue wrong PC password moment that will have you rolling your eyes in recognition and in stitches.

The Lego Batman Movie is a Lego rollercoaster of a ride with highs and lows, and perhaps too many characters than it can handle on one screen and use to full comedic potential. Nevertheless, it is a marvel of an animation with a good pounding heart – plus you’ll all be quoting Batman in Arnett’s gruff tones for days to come.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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BFI LFF 2016: Prevenge ***

Alice Lowe was the writing/acting force behind the incredibly dark and murderous comedy Sightseers, directed by Ben Wheatley that sent excitable ripples through BFI LFF in 2012. The format here for new slasher-comedy Prevenge is not much different in terms of style. It’s another great showpiece for Lowe’s acting talents in a directorial debut, while boldly using the serious subject of antenatal depression as its emotive vehicle.

It also helps that Lowe was pregnant at the time of making Prevenge, rendering it a highly intriguing exploration for those with any such experience of this illness. By using the jet-blackest of comedy, Lowe draws much-needed attention to the condition, forcing us to confront its reality – very astute filmmaking indeed.

Lowe plays pregnant Ruth, virtually full-term but grieving a life-changing event that gradually comes to light. Along the way, she encounters an array of prejudice from a variety of people, dealing with it in her own murderous way, supposedly spurred on her unborn child’s voice from within.

Sometimes the touchiness subjects are best dealt with comedy. Lowe guides us throughout this tricky terrain with her usual deadpan, vacant stance, turning everyday remarks ‘those with child’ encounter into the ridiculous and hence, justifying Ruth’s reactions. The first couple of vile victims get their ‘just desserts’, with the inappropriateness of the opening scene dialogue only (brilliantly) registering after a minute, much like in a real-life abuse situation where disbelief turns to horror then to anger at being made the unwilling recipient.

Lowe never allows us to pigeon-hole Ruth quite so easily though, keeping her varied and unpredictable – the only given is she’s finding pregnancy tough and will have her baby girl in the end. Ruth is both entertaining as she is shocking in behaviour. Lowe nails the internal thoughts any expectant mother has had when faced with ‘sympathetic’ healthcare professionals and those believing motherhood is a woman’s natural urge. This is where Ruth’s character lays the vital foundations for us to empathise with her. She is consumed by grief and feeling alienated, walking alone towards the inevitable in a comatose state. These are powerful character traits that could have been further explored though.

The production values do place Prevenge in the low-budget, B-movie bargain bucket, and while favouring sobering muted tones and unfocused camera moments to reflect Ruth’s state of mind, also dwell too much on some of the kills as to lessen the of the significance of the illness Ruth is displaying. Lowe only manages to claw this back by getting some superb acting moments out of her supporting cast – such as Jo Hartley as Ruth’s chirpy midwife, even though most characters are painted as caricatures on the whole. Yet the unpolished production values also serve well to mirror an imperfect mental state, so it’s questionable whether any other way (and bigger budget) would have worked better.

Prevenge is a fascinating take on the female killer, as society still battles with – and disbelieves that – women do kill. Antenatal depression might give the intent and some might question using this subject in a nonchalant way, but only by Lowe’s bold filmmaking does it become accessible and open to debate. Lowe delivers an entertaining and thought-provoking directorial debut in her own unique style that could have gone deeper, but that can only be praised and built on in her next project.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2016: La La Land *****

As a slice of cinematic bliss goes, you can’t get better than Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle‘s latest musical offering, La La Land. Full of the joys and melodrama of the golden age of Hollywood, it’s a love story of various passions set in La La Land, but with sobering modern sentiment. It isn’t all happiness, but laced with moments of harsh reality. That said it is beautifully stylish and whisks you up in the lure of Tinseltown. It also puts a very flattering spotlight on its leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, so no surprises there have been nods and awards a plenty.

Gosling is Seb, a passionate jazz pianist who is a total purist but keeps getting the ‘bread and butter’ gigs that cramp his style. Stuck in an LA traffic jam, he briefly meets his destiny, Mia, played by Stone, who is an aspiring actor with a barista day job in the heart of Warner Bros Studios movie set land. She almost gets to taste the sweetest of acting success, only to miss out every time. Another chance encounter sets the pair on a course to romance, but can it survive the pressures of their own true passions, jazz music and acting?

La La Land plays out like a dream from the start, without being overly schmaltzy. This is thanks to the reality check it injects when things get a little too cosy. It’s an ode to the likes of the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ era of cinema, complete with a similar dance number in the Hollywood Hills. It’s infectious and causes a good deal of toe-tapping and knee-jigging, without the need for its leads to burst into song all the time. There are respites of pure, vibrant jazz to enjoy that attempt to educate us – like Seb tries to do with Mia in the story. In that respect, it’s a highly sensory and all-inclusive film, whether you like musicals or not.

Gosling and Stone rift off each other superbly – and not just in song and dance, but actually the comedy moments: Mia teases Seb about his imposed choice of music gig to make ends meet. This gets sourer as the relationship progresses and careers take off, adding a very intriguing story arc that gradually creeps up on all and becomes totally consuming.

The overriding feeling of the film is of living in a parallel universe to your dream that’s within reach but just out of grasp too. It’s that lack of actual control that really resonates for anyone watching, especially when we are forever told about making bright new beginnings happen with each New Year that arrives. The film cleverly has you reassessing your life without knowing it and without patronage, making it all the more poignant and affecting.

It’s not perfect. There are brief moments of banality, pockets of the film that are easily forgotten weeks after viewing. However, La La Land offers a kind of therapy in a cold, unsure world, a guaranteed spiritual boost. It’s a film you will remember for how it made you feel, rather than for any meaningful storyline, especially with the haunting piano solo by Gosling’s Seb at the end. The fact that there’s nothing quite like it at the box office at the moment also makes it a wonderful alternative too, with no special effects (alright, we know Gosling and Stone can’t actually fly), no animation, no widespread urban destruction, just ‘staged reality’, one of La La Land’s most compelling contradictions.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Why Him? ****

Want to be entertained in a Meet the Parents / Father of the Bride kind of way this festive season? After all, for many of us, spending time with the ‘outlaws’ is happening right now – and for some, for the very first time. Why Him? from the former comedy’s screenwriter, John Hamburg, is just what you need. It also stars Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame in the lead comedy role that would suit Steve Martin any day.

Ned Fleming (Cranston) is invited to Silicon Valley to meet his daughter Stephanie’s (Zoey Deutch) new beau Laird (James Franco) and spend the holidays with them. Trouble is, Laird is a boundaries-less bundle of unpredictable energy, but a successful gaming software whizzkid. As old-school meets new tech, the sparks fly, but are Ned and Laird actually two peas in a pod?

It’s easy to dismiss this comedy from first glimpse of the snappily edited trailer. It does look like many other family-feud storylines. However, it has Cranston in superb comedy flow, plus hilarious set-ups that are allowed to fully ripen for full funny effect: Take the ‘space-aged toilet misunderstanding’ moment between Ned and Keegan-Michael Key as Laird’s advisor Gustav – often in The Pink Panther Kato style, as referenced in the script.

Utter silliness is still the order of the day, and some might be put off by the presence of two decorated members of the Judd Apatow film-making gang – this stars Franco and is co-written by Jonah Hill. That said there are some very astute observations about the fear of being ‘left behind’ in the tech race and in business in general, plus generation-gap differences that make the writing more superior to former comedies, rather than adopting the Apatow man-boy/stoner humour – even though this is in there too.

You do have to first buy into Franco in fine stoner form for all this to work, which prompts an initial eye-rolling reaction. However, his being judged by ‘Walter White’ is delicious to behold. Another gem is Will and Grace’s Karen – squeaky voiced toned down. Megan Mullally plays Ned’s wife Barb who tries to go with the flow and embraces new experiences. However, she is not merely the usual, coy ‘mumsey’ character that these comedies lazily add in, rather a comedy force to be reckoned with in each scene. That’s the beauty of this comedy; all the characters are strong individually.

Why Him? is obvious in its story direction – totally predictable in fact. The skill is how well it gets there and produces ample belly laughs to really enjoy along the way. For Cranston fans, it’s a world apart from Walter and even Trumbo, but it shows this great actor’s chameleon acting skills, and is another highly entertaining offering in the mix.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Monster Trucks (3D) ***

Don’t be fooled by the title; this is where machine and beast meet, not the kind of engine-driven trucks seen at Santa Pod and the like. Once you get your head around WHY such a monster would want to bed down within a clapped-out old pick-up, the daftness that is Monster Trucks is replaced by a certain fondness for the squid-like animal within, which the kids really do grow to love – once they’ve finished jumping out of their seats at its initial introduction.

Like any teen, Tripp (Lucas Till) is desperate to escape his small-town life and builds a Monster Truck out of scrapped cars at his local garage where he works part-time (run by Danny Glover’s character). An accident at the town’s oil-drilling site causes a ‘monster displacement’ and results in one taking refuge inside Tripp’s truck.

This oil-guzzling creature becomes an unlikely asset and friend to Tripp who makes it his mission to get the creature home – helped by Tripp-infatuated school chum Meredith (Jane Levy), after the oil company ‘baddies’ led by arch villain Rob Lowe‘s character try to prevent the beast and others like it returning to the lucrative, oil-rich drilling site.

This action-filled family adventure plucks at the heartstrings in many ways, unashamedly so too. We do sympathise with Tripp’s difficult family situation and immediately understand the developing bond between him and the monster as both needs protecting in their own special ways.

There is a lot of fun to be had while the film-makers berate greedy oil barons and America’s obsession with mining the liquid gold stuff. In a way, it’s a family adventure for the avid/budding environmentalist, with the mantra of ‘look at the damage caused by fossil fuels’ running right the way through, while strangely, worshipping petrol-head heaven in action.

For smaller kids, it has all that is needed to entertain; monsters, speed, trucks and chases, and the story is more than clear to any under five (as in my son’s case), especially as ‘Crank’ – as the monster is named – returns in The Abyss-style glory at the end. It is simplistic to the point of tedium for adults at times, but watched with small folk, can be quite exhilarating to experience together.

Monster Trucks is nothing profound – in fact, as to alerting young minds to environmental issues go, all-time classic WALL.E beats hands down. However, it does things in an immensely fun and loud fashion and in a way that kids will instantly connect to, guided by a young, good-looking hero-of-the-hour in Tripp. In an unexpected twist, it may just prove to be a school holidays’ box-office hit.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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