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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Baywatch ****

This could have been an expensive gamble that didn’t pay off. Seth Gordon has guided the reboot of popular TV series Baywatch onto the big screen with expertise, making sure there are oodles of silliness, as well as buff bodies clad in red Lycra to enjoy. Position popular actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson at the helm – who has proved his ease at moving between comedy, family and adventure films, and there is a recipe for success.

Johnson plays the iconic character, lifeguard Mitch Buchannon, brought to life on TV by David Hasselhoff (who makes a cameo in this). While butting heads with cocky new recruit Matt Brody, played by Zac Efron, who used to be an Olympic swimming champion, fallen on hard times due to booze, Buchannon uncovers a criminal plot headed by hotelier mogul Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) that threatens the future of the bay.

Never throughout its 116 minutes run-time does Baywatch ever drop its tongue-in-cheek stance and try to be anything more than a current send-up of the TV series. This is ALL about delivering fun, fun and more fun, along with plenty of action and undercurrents of serious social topics. Just take Jon Bass’s Ronnie character’s embarrassing ‘entanglement’ on a beach lounger, and how Buchannon and co deal with that particular ‘rescue’, and you get the gist. Think Judd Apatow does Baywatch in fact. Every scene mocks the pseudo seriousness of the TV drama, so it’s a tonic to watch if you were a fan.

Johnson and Efron make a great team – alpha male verses alpha male, which, interestingly, turns into a father-son relationship of mutual appreciation. This is played below the radar as not to revert from the campness going on – no surprises there really. Of course the females play second fiddle to the male leads – as expected, but all characters are there to be ogled, precisely the incentive of the TV show. The girls just get to tease more in this. The fact the baddie is a femme fatale stereotype is nothing new either, but Chopra is a sultry delight in the role, like watching any Bond villain at play on a Baywatch set.

It’s important to remember Baywatch is not out to smash stereotypes but embrace and mock them for pure pleasure. It’s self-depreciating too, allowing anything to happen without judgment. Throw in some explosions (and fireworks), stunts and pecs and buts, plus a strong cast who deliver comedy effortlessly, and it’s one of the best box office nights out on offer at present – something that surprised even this reviewer!

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (3D) **

The thought of Captain Jack Sparrow returning to the big screen will always bring a smile to the face of some. However, what latest installment titled Salazar’s Revenge (or as it’s also know, Dead Men Tell No Tales) proves is you can’t rely on him alone to carry a film. The biggest winner on the night were the impressive special effects, even though new female lead Carina, played by Kaya Scodelario, fairs better than Ms Knightley ever did – a better-drawn character all round.

Carina is thought to be a witch but is actually a ‘woman of science’, a self-taught astronomer who is on the hunt for Poseidon’s Trident, along with Henry (Brenton Thwaites), the son of previous characters Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann – Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley who both pop up in this. They have to recruit the help of Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his crew of the Black Pearl to do so. However, all are being pursued by deadly ghost pirates led by Sparrow’s old nemesis, the terrifying Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) who is on a mission to kill every pirate at sea after escaping from the Devil’s Triangle.

Salazar’s Revenge tries to return to the swashbuckling glory of yonder years, even with scenes of a baby-faced Depp as Sparrow to help reignite our interest in the character. Sadly, the most rounded character here is the return of Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbosa who ends up steal many of the scenes and gets the most interesting character arc.

Gone are the days when we gleefully sniggered at Depp’s sozzled Sparrow who crashes around port towns he lands in and leers at pretty ladies – including Carina. It’s becoming a little embarrassing, like seeing the same sozzled uncle at Christmas repeating the same actions. Thankfully, Scodelario’s Carina is more than apt at rebuffal and charting her own course at sea. Although Scodelario is very good in the role and tries to make Carina a solid female part at the beginning, the problem lies in the lack of character development as the story (and adventure) progresses – a problem all but Rush’s character has.

The characters begin to be caught up in the whirl of special effects – the only thing really fascinating to watch here, just see the dead sharks in action. Even natural ‘screen baddie’ Bardem can’t summon up enough malice to truly terrify and looks as deflated as we are towards the end, like he’s battling for screen-time with the CGI, which says a lot about effects taking over plot.

You really do look forward to each new Pirates tale as they are pure adventure-fantasy pleasure. However, Salazar’s Revenge is a CGI triumph and a character fail, with a story/adventure worth telling far, far better.

2/5 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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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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Office Christmas Party ***

We all have them, some more eventful and memorable than others. This is just an excuse to showcase one of the wildest ones, surrounded by a film ‘plot’ about corporate meanness (festive redundancies etc) and Christmas spirit. Office Christmas Party has the staple offering of comic heavyweights Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon and Rob Corddry who between them provide enough gurns and giggles to keep us entertained. Short of that there is nothing new to be had.

When uptight CEO sister Carol Vanstone (Aniston) threatens to shut down a failing branch of an IT firm that was run by her late father, her laid-back brother and party animal Clay (T.J. Miller in true ‘bogus’ hippie style) decides to throw the ultimate office Christmas party to woo a big client in town – and keep up his supposed office popularity.

Carol has forbidden any festivities, but Clay orders in excess. The night plays out well, until Sis gets wind of it and the VIP guest over-indulges. The party gets way out of hand, but in the haze of a hangover and complete destruction, a solution to all their problems arises, thanks to a little office camaraderie.

Aniston puts her best assets on show. Bateman is the reasonable man trying to resolve the situation. McKinnon channels her inner Ghostbuster eccentricity into a rigid façade crying out for release. And Corddry plays the angry man – again. So far, nothing is new.

The ‘saviour’ of the story is not Bateman as usual though, but the stunning Olivia Munn as programming whizz kid Tracey, fulfilling every geek’s wet dream and proving that beauty, brains and a killer sense of humour can co-exist in one screen goddess. In fact, this is very much a tale of female dominance, which is surprising to admit (without getting any deeper either), considering the party depravity. It even includes an unhinged female pimp, played by Jillian Bell.

The plot really isn’t up to much, so go along to Office Christmas Party with just that in mind – like being invited to the most outrageous do for 2016, without tasting a drop of beverage on offer. Every party has its characters, which fuel the memories – as this bunch do. Even though it will all be a haze in a month’s time as to what actually happens here, there was less of a sore head after watching, and more a cracking good time had that you can walk away from, without much consequence.

3/5 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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