Paddington 2 *****

Most people know who Paddington Bear is; a classic childhood character that loves marmalade sandwiches and travels from Peru to London, where he comes to live with the Browns. The first film three years ago did an enchanting job of introducing the bear to the Big Smoke, complete with some fun and memorable moments (like the bathroom flooding scene) and a villain in taxidermist Nicole Kidman.

Having established the bear, the sequel ups the ante, delivering a wonderful storyline fans can really get on board with. Now settled with the Browns, Paddington decides to buy his Aunt Lucy a 100th birthday present. However, the present he wants costs too much, so he reserves it until he can collect together enough money. Sadly, the gift catches the eye of vain local actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Then it goes missing from the shop in an apparent burglary. Paddington gets into trouble hunting the culprit, resulting in him having to clear his own name.

The excellent returning cast of Ben Whishaw (voices Paddington), Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters etc is always a positive. The location also plays on nostalgic London – the kind tourists seek out, where affluent Brits can be as eccentric as they please in their own local community, rendering a bear living in their midst as ‘normal’. There is also the introduction of an old-fashioned fun fair to enchant further in other scenes and hark back to childhood memories.

This film is better than the original because there is an actual adventure to follow and two brilliant new characters; camp Buchanan (Grant) and menacing prison chef Knuckles McGinty, played by Brendan Gleeson. Adventure-wise, the story leads us (and the bear) to all kinds of places, some you wouldn’t expect Paddington to be in. But through his impeccable manners and innocence, he wins over hearts and minds – just another part of the whole film’s charm.

Grant steals the show though – this will be sweet music to the musical-theatre-loving thespian he plays. Grant is having a ball hamming it up – so do we watching him. This climaxes in a colourful finale that will have you in hysterics, especially as the actor has proclaimed not to be too fond of dancing. In contrast to the showy Buchanan, Gleeson’s no-nonsense Knuckles goes on a personal journey, thanks to Paddington. There is even a scene straight out of a Bond/Bourne film that bonds the unlikely pair further.

Paddington 2 is good-value family entertainment, with all kinds of characters in the mix, but still enjoying the full support of the Browns – not relegated to the sidelines as the bear goes on his hunt/adventure, but still very much in action. Do catch this if you can!

5/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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LFF 2017: Mutafukaz ****

Japanese anime has always been pop culture’s anarchic social commentary on current affairs, but equally troubling for its sexualizing imagery of young girls. Its fantastical themes, vibrant characters and whirl of colour are still compelling for most.

Mutafukaz, the new Franco-Japanese collaboration by directors Shoujirou Nishimi and Guillaume ‘Run’ Renard shown at this year’s London Film Festival suddenly makes anime more relevant and accessible to a wider audience. With its nods to the likes of Ren and Stimpy, Grand Theft Auto, Leon and even Men in Black, Mutafukaz uses such references cleverly to address modern-day social issues, ranging from austerity and multiculturalism to state intervention in a highly energetic and entertaining way.

The story’s lead character is pizza-delivery boy called Angelino, one of many deadbeats living in Dark Meat City (D.M.C.), along with flat mate, best buddy Vinz who has a skull head that’s always flaming. In life in D.M.C. will always be “Desperate, Miserable and Crap” – the boys just need to break away from all the ugliness and the cockroaches.

On his rounds one day absent-minded Angelino is transfixed by a stunning, mysterious girl walking past, causing in him crashing his scooter. First putting it down to concussion, he begins noticing menacing monster-like shapes, while mean-looking men in black are after him, resulting in him and Vinz going on the run.

Creator Renard has come a long way from the Sundance short of the same name. With the help of veteran animator Nishimi they have given birth to genuine animated characters, each with curious personalities. The feature-length run-time of 90 minutes has helped with this, giving an actual sense of Angelino and Vinz’s daily troubles, but amplified by strong, purposeful voiceovers from actors Tay Lee and Mark Ryan Haltom respectively.

While having an ever-present sense of urgency and paranoia, the pace slows at times, so we can take a breath and marvel at the creativity, illustrating the mood of the moment. Take Angelino’s Pied Piper-esque skill with their resident cockroaches, rendering something revolting rather alluring to watch.

Die-hard anime fans still get their dose of gravity-defying moves, graphic gore, juvenile reactions and blatant sexism. However, scenes such as the shoot-outs in the ghetto are injected with Shakespearean prose (and graffiti) and stage choreography, all in splendid 2D render. With such hard-hitting issues at play, grinding down our protagonists, empathy for each multiplies, reaffirming our commitment to seeing them succeed.

This addictive sense of survival and rebirth, coupled with the bigger mystery – who are the alien beings and why do they want Angelino – adds many intriguing layers to a 2D production, while the characters bombard us with thoughts and opinions in their wake.

Mutafukaz becomes not just a coming-of-age journey for our animated heroes, but one for the anime newcomer, quite possibly igniting a newfound love of the art and bringing the fantasy down with a thud to a palpable street-level understanding.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Cars 3 ***

With Cars 1 and Cars 2 always on at some point at home (with our two kids), the prospect of a third outing is inevitable, kind of a pilgrimage that must be made (parents nods in unison). In fact, we have waited six years for the latest installment, after first encountering youthful, cocky racing legend Lightning McQueen getting lost in Radiator Falls off Route 66 in 2006.

What the third film, Cars 3, highlights is how quickly time passes – McQueen is now the geriatric motor like mentor Doc Hudson (voiced by the late Paul Newman) was, making you surprisingly reminisce on what a decade has brought you? It’s this reflection that Cars 3 makers Disney Pixar want you to experience, using a cross-generational storyline.

After losing the latest speedway race to a new generation of race cars like suave winner Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer), Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson back in the driving seat) sets out to prove he still has what it takes to win. However, his true direction is revealed after an unexpected off-track journey taken with trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

The success (or failure) of Cars 3 really does depend on what you want from the film – and your dedication to the characters. The story has to progress – Lightning McQueen cannot race forever, as every sportsman knows too well. This is Disney too, so there has to be a happy, albeit poignant, family-friendly ending.

It’s not so much the McQueen character progression here, but whether you want action scenes verses lovable character moments for committed fans. Indeed, those craving more Mater moments will be disappointed – the Doc gets more of an outing that the goofy tow truck whose quirky quips feel a little flat. The Radiator Springs bunch – much like the second film – gets driven out as the cheerleaders once more, like spectators to their own franchise. Dwell on the (mis)fortunes of the former characters, and you get a sense of great sadness that they are being resigned to the Disney store cupboard.

This film’s hook relies on Lightning McQueen’s interaction with the new characters. Here, the studio has gone with more ‘girl power’ with Cruz – remember Emily Mortimer’s Holley Shiftwell spy car in the second film? Cruz is really peppy and great fun, but also self-doubting, which allows McQueen to give the pep talk and ‘grow up’.

What film three lacks though, is an actual adventure that the second had and kept little ones really entertained by. Indeed, there is ‘a journey’ going on, but this self-discovery version begins to feel like it’s wallowing at times, threatening to dislodge any little ones’ interest. It’s then you will the film to move on speedily to the next action scene to stop the inevitable “can we go now” line from being utter in the cinematic darkness. This happened three-quarters of the way through from a Cars-obsessed, 4.5-year-old – very telling indeed. Just be prepared.

As for action, the effects and graphics are superb especially the near-realistic mud pit in the ‘demolition derby’ race McQueen and Cruz compete in that feels like a bit of Radiator Springs nostalgia. However, it’s the first-person gamer view of the speedway racing track that really wows and gets the juices going of any speed demon watching. This wizardry shows how far the franchise has come and Disney Pixar must be commended on.

Cars 3 does have ‘something for everyone’, which is why it’s still proved so lucrative both in theatrical and home entertainment terms. This saga just forwards the narrative towards (maybe) a new fork in the Cars road map? One that doesn’t necessarily say good-bye to Radiator Springs and Route 66, but could take another interesting path…

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Despicable Me 3 ***

The thought of another Minions-packed film might have us parents running for the hills. Anyone who’s been subjected to (tortured by) the Minions Banana song by their offspring will be nodding in agreement right now. It takes a strong stomach to take the kids to Despicable Me 3.

Fear not though: Film number 3 is far less about the little yellow babbling creatures and more about ex-villain Gru and his family connections and choices. This is both a plus and a minus for the franchise.

Bad-turned-good Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) and wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) have been fired from the Anti-Villain League (like the FBI) for reasons played out at the beginning. Meanwhile, the redundant Minions decide life with Gru is no longer fun and decide to go it alone. Wondering what to do next, Gru is contacted by his long-lost twin Dru (Carrell) who wants him to go back into the family business: villainy – something the latter needs help with. The plan is to steal a diamond that another baddie has locked away, 80s-loving supervillian Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). Can both brothers work together and resurrect the glory days?

Although writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have wisely tried another way of injecting a new lease of life into the Despicable Me saga with the brothers’ relationship and how that impacts on Gru’s family, the original fans of the films – the youngsters – do begin to question when they’ll be seeing more Minions action, which this film is light on. Granted, a prison break by the yellow menace satisfies for a short period, but any mini Minions nuts out there will be asking during the film when are their custard-coloured anti-heroes coming back onscreen next?

For the rest of us, there is enough to entertain you with, watching the family dynamics in play. Even though the makers have give adults a Minions respite by exploring this, the real fun comes from Bratt and his 80s obsessions, which allows those of us who remember those days first time around to indulge in 80s fever, bringing silly grins to faces at the campness of the decade and its fashions and music. It feels like a cheap laugh but it’s gratefully accepted. The rest of the film flies around at its usual colourful pace, without much else standing out.

Despicable Me 3 feels like the ‘third best’ in the saga – in all fairness, it’s just trying something new with the narrative and characters. If you like Gru and family then this will go down easily and effortlessly. If you actually ‘like’ Minions, you might be putting on a previous film when you get home to get your fill – as this reviewer did to placate a young (slightly disappointed) Minions fan.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Transformers: The Last Knight (3D) **

Relax folks, it’s Michael Bay back again for the fifth time to assault our senses. Go into Transformers: The Last Night with this in mind, and the outcome isn’t as painful as you might expect. There is less mangled mental in colourful whirl than in previous films – and this one is mildly better than the last. Indeed, love or hate him, Bay is a master at crafting an action blockbuster for the supersized screen, which is why people come back for more. It’s got nothing to do with plot and character development.

Action stalwart Mark Wahlberg returns for more of a beating as engineer and ‘inventor’ Cade Yeager who is in hiding from the Transformers Reaction Force, a military-run operation tasked with ridding the planet of Transformers. Yeager has a few hiding out in his scrap metal yard, including Bumblebee, right-hand robot to the Autobot’s leader, Optimus Prime (who keeps telling us he’s ‘Optimus Prime’ throughout, in case we missed it).

The latter is forced against his will to find the key – something to do with mythical wizard Merlin – to bringing Prime’s dead home planet, Cybertron, back to life, while Megatron and his Decepticons wait to destroy him and his crew. The problem is, in bringing Cybertron back, Earth must perish. It’s up to Yeager, an English history professor (Laura Haddock) and their allies (including Anthony Hopkins as Sir Edmund Burton, Josh Duhamel as ever embattled Colonel William Lennox and John Turturro as the exiled but returning Agent Simmons) to save our planet.

In a similar vein to the Fast and Furious franchise – both boast machines, babes and gravity-defying stunts (for humans), Transformers still fills cinema seats. The answer is in the easily digestible format as listed. You can switch off and go ‘oooo and ahhh’ at the spectacle, like being on an overpriced rollercoaster seat – and it affects the eyeballs too. If that’s not your bag, it isn’t going to delight or get any better. In fact, it’s going to be painful. That is where the problem lies in critics expecting greater things from Bay – he actually gives you what you crave in terms of an action blockbuster fix, nothing else.

Transformers is an utterly daft franchise, made crazier this time in The Last Knight by the excruciating upper-class English caricatures that are both ridiculous and unrealistic – much like its battle scenes. It always prompts much head scratching when humans believe firing rounds of bullets and rockets at superior alien life forms would eliminate the threat. Eventually they hit the bullseye, after some bright spark figures out how to.

The fact that writers Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan believe linking the kingdom of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table to the Transformers’ history is farcical in itself – like a last bid attempt at making the story franchise credible. If you can absorb and overcome this absurdity, it’s even more entertainingly silly to watch – a fact the cast seem to have grasped.

Wahlberg is designed for such films, returning for more. His character is always agreeable, testosterone-fuelled and smart-mouthed enough to get you on side. Like Fast and Furious, there are some nice motors to ogle too – in addition to pouty Haddock who is a Megan Fox clone, however unfair that is to the Brit actress. There is also the (frankly) pointless casting of young Isabela Moner as ‘Transformer protector’ Izabella, perhaps for the younger audience, but sinisterly ‘over sexed’ (and pouty) to set off parents’ alarm bells of 12 year-olds. Again, it’s Bay’s Fox obsession filtering through…

Transformers: The Last Night (3D) – seen in 3D but not necessary to be – is much of the same with a plot out of a Dan Brown novel, if you think of the secret society aspect. The familiar faces slog on to the last; indeed, the ending points to installment six. Yes, another Transformer siege is in the planning, and if you haven’t got fatigue already, there’s a Bumblebee spin-off too. If that grates by the end of this film, Optimus Prime telling us he’s, well, Optimus Prime, then be prepared for the onslaught of the bleedin’ obvious in round six. You just can’t keep a Transformer down, it seems.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Rock Dog ***

Another animation, another animated ‘hero’ full of good intentions, this time the moral in Rock Dog is: ‘follow your dreams and don’t let anyone deter you’, with talking animals, akin to Zootropolis. It’s not the latter though (unfairly judged against a larger studio release in some respects), but has its own indie charm, full of funny, cute moments. What is does have is a highly catchy theme tune in ‘Glorious’, which the kids were humming all the way out of the cinema and down the street afterwards. In that respect, it makes its mark through music.

After a radio falls from the sky, guitar-loving Tibetan Mastiff Bodi (voiced by Luke Wilson) hears rock music for the first time from ‘superstar rocker’ Angus Scattergood (voiced by Eddie Izzard), and realises his dream is to be a musician. That goes dead against what his father, guard dog Khampa (voiced by J.K. Simmons) wants for him – he ought to be guarding the sheep of the village against their ancient enemy, the wolves. Khampa reluctantly lets his son go to the big city to fulfill his dream – and maybe meet Scattergood in the flesh.

Rock Dog has some good-hearted, fun characters to ride along with, and a certain easy charm that makes it totally consumable. Although Bodi is the star and certainly resonates with the kids, Scattergood is for the adults. Izzard is hilarious as the cat ‘music demi god’ who finds most things in life tedious and has run out of inspiration. He is the epitome of ‘Brit music cool’ though and that alone is enough to make him a memorable character.

Indeed, the plot can be seem coming a mile off before the film has even started – we know Bodi will be successful, somehow. The film is about the journey he takes, with its quaint innocence from not only Bodi but also the sheep. It’s also a refreshing take, set in the Tibetan hills, from the usual city affair, though it ends up in the Big Smoke.

The other thing is it is all good clean fun for a younger child to watch – even though it involves a rock star. Even the wolves are not too scary for youngsters (not jumping in mum/dad’s lap this time), and are like poor imitations from a tame Guy Ritchie gangster flick (minus any swearing). Centre stage is given to the fledgling Bodi-Scattergood relationship, and the highs and lows of it. In that sense, kids get to see humility in the end, in addition to the rise to stardom.

Rock Dog has a lot of lessons for all viewers of all ages to learn from – after all, it’s never too late for anyone to follow a dream. Some of the humour is a little slapstick and déjà vu, but utterly harmless, nevertheless. It will make you walk away with a smile and a hum, so that’s not a bad thing.

3/5 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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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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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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