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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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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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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Passengers ***

Described by some as a ‘love story in space’, director Morten Tyldum’s new and hotly anticipated sci-fi action thriller Passengers throws up some interesting concepts at the start but falls short of further exploration. It is certainly slick to encounter and has a good chemistry in its leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, considering the appalling circumstance they come to be known to each other.

When passenger Jim Preston’s (Pratt) hibernation pod accidently opens 90 years too soon into a 120-year journey to another planet, he finds he is all alone on an auto-piloted ship. Panic turns to him making a life or death decision, and a romance with another passenger, Aurora (Lawrence). However, as the ship begins to malfunction and Jim’s secret comes out, it is up to them to rally together and save the voyage, ship and the lives of thousands of passengers on board.

The concept of being lost in space is a ripe and creepy one that feeds on our fears and curiosity of the greater beyond ‘up there’. Tyldum’s story plays on this nicely from the start, with Pratt our competent leading man demonstrating how to kill time while trying to figure out how to survive his dilemma. It is his only real time to shine in the film as, as soon as Lawrence is awake, the focus is on her and her complete screen dominance.

Again, Passengers demonstrates that whatever Lawrence is in, she steers the project, with the camera loving her and her every move, completely casting a shadow over Pratt. Even Michael Sheen as android bartender Arthur – like some sci-fi The Shining extra – upstages Pratt in their scenes. This is no fault of latter, only we are supposed to empathise with Jim. However, as he does something so despicable – bordering on stalker-ish, it is very hard to. Hence, here lies the conundrum and an apparent plot weakness. That said, what Jim does do makes you question how you would react in the same situation, so in an unsettling sense, it is also thought-provoking.

As the action ramps up – and Laurence Fishburne makes a brief appearance to help in the salvation, the idea of trying to establish control over your situation is an intense one that propels the story forward. The credibility of proceedings does leave you frowning as to how two passengers with limited knowledge could save such a ship in the timeframe given and defy the laws of science. Therefore, there is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief involved to allow you to enjoy the action scenes.

Passengers has some great ideas to ponder over and a good-looking cast. The ‘love story’ is a little titillating to show off how fine the two leads are. However, it needed to get its facts a little straighter and pay more attention to its plot scenarios to truly propel it into the big league of sci-fi memorabilia, which is a shame as there is a lot to chew over in it.

3/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Moana (3D) ****

We are getting quite used to strong animated female leads, and Disney’s latest hum-along entitled Moana – the name of the heroine in it – is no exception. She is headstrong, smart, courageous, adventurous and naturally, pretty. What makes her and her adventure more intriguing is the mythology surrounding the tale that anyone can enjoy, with songs that are emotive and toe-tappingly catchy, rather than pure schmaltz.

A terrible curse is triggered after a greedy Demigod called Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) steals a precious stone, causing all islands in the region to slowly perish. When the curse finally reaches Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho), an impetuous Chieftain’s daughter’s island, she answers the ocean’s call to seek out Maui and put things right.

Moana is a blaze of colour and a cool refreshing summer breeze on a chilly December day, with exotic island settings and characters that entertain all age groups. It also has enough subtle jokes for adults, rather than overkill of tedious ‘nudge, nudge, wink, winks’ that have to be explained in the darkness of a cinema as to why mummy or daddy is in a fit of giggles when something clearly unfunny has happened to small eyes.

Moana is also justified in her scolding nature at times, especially with the immature Maui, rather than damn right condescending like some other ‘Disney princesses’. She is very practical and full of wanderlust, which is infectious – though Disney can’t resist drumming home the ‘listen to yourself and follow your dreams’ mantra it survives on. Still, what’s wrong with that?

Again, the 3D is irrelevant for kids too young to keep their glasses on. The magic is in the colourful storytelling, the mood-raising songs and the fun characters that all have their minute of fame and purpose. There is even a Bowie-esque number by a crab that thrills.

Moana merchandise is in the shops, ready for Christmas. However, this time, you don’t resent the hard Disney sell as Moana is a role model any parent would actively encourage their offspring to have.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Bad Santa 2 *

We’ve been waiting for a festive sequel for over a decade now, where we can gleefully revel in Billy Bob Thornton’s sozzled loser Santa telling kids harsh life truths once more. However, we don’t get to enjoy every adult’s favourite wicked St Nick this time for a number of reasons – and it’s not actually Thornton’s fault.

This time, Willie Soke (Thornton) is about to put himself out of his miserable existence when another opportunity arises to make a crooked buck, thanks to old sidekick Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox). Willie is reluctant at first because his former ‘diminutive’ partner in crime tried to top him last time, but the loot is too great to miss out on.

The hapless pair decides to rob a charity, but there’s only one hiccup; Willie will have to play Santa again. Also, Willie discovers it’s all his jailbird mother Sunny’s (Kathy Bates) idea – who he has never liked much. Can he put their differences aside and don the red suit to get to the prize?

Robbing a charity at Xmas is a risky plotline to start with, especially trying to make it seem ‘hilarious’. However, as wrong as that sounds, the biggest single issue is everything done to excess in this. There is too much swearing, too much shouting and too much Bates. Indeed, Sunny is meant to be as appalling as her offspring, but she dominates proceedings, and when she locks horns with Marcus, it’s a competition to be the meanest, ugliest character in the room, making Willie almost a saint. In fact, Willie is drowned out in the furore, so we don’t really get to hear him spout his poison.

Also, the Thurman Merman ‘man child’ character – who is much older and dumber and still played by cuddly Brett Kelly as in the 2003 film – just does not work this time around, short of squeezing a tear out of Willie. Thurman’s wide-eyed innocence in the original flick brilliantly contrasted with Willie’s nastiness. In this film, not only is he an afterthought, but an embarrassing attempt by the writers at rekindling the magic.

Christina Hendricks as pushover glam charity owner Diane Hastings must be a good sport as she merely fulfills all her fans’ Xmas wishes here by being a horny, busty conquest for Willie – and little else.

Bad Santa 2 is bad, and for all the wrong reasons. It’s definitely the biggest box office turkey this festive season, sadly, a shame as Thornton is very much still Willie in spirit.

1/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ***

The J.K. Rowling imagination is always a treat to witness on screen – and on the page, so this magical ‘prequel’ to the Harry Potter series was bound not to disappoint on a creative level and be equaling immersive.

Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne is English writer Newt Scamander, a socially awkward intellectual who arrives with ‘animal baggage’ in New York to source more species. However, he gets embroiled in sinister witch hunts – by ‘Muggles’ called ‘No Majs’ – and power struggles within the secret community of witches and wizards, seventy years before school-boy Harry Potter reads his book.

The more cynical might say the latest story is milking the cash cow that Rowling has made so lucrative. However, fans of her wizard world cannot get enough of the super imaginative existence, and this is again delivered in spades, along with some comedy moments.

The film also appeals to animal lovers and preservationists, with a couple of ‘innocents’ at the helm trying protect the former. Redmayne is perfectly cast, but as Newt spends a lot of time in mumbled reflection and social awkwardness, it is down to Muggle ‘comic’ sidekick Jacob (a great performance by Dan Fogler), who Newt unexpectedly gets entangled with at the start, to be our guide and re-enforce this ‘wide-eyed innocence’ the film so relies on to further enchant.

Rowling cleverly ties in real-world beliefs, with America’s witch trials in the 1920s, giving the story foundation greater significance. Hence, context, setting and cast are all commendably established, ready for the next in the film installment. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same affliction as the first Potter films, with a lot of the space dominated by trying to set up the pre-Potter world (of how it all began) – even to the detriment of the fantastic animals – that the film’s story gets a little lost.

That said as a festive family offering, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them has all the charm needed to make it a satisfying viewing – and a must-see for Potter enthusiasts, kind of like a history lesson in Potter origins.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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