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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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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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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Doctor Strange ****

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Any Cumberb*tch could have told you their idol Benedict Cumberbatch was on a higher spiritual level a long time ago. Indeed, the actor is famous for playing cerebral, influential men, so it’s no stretch of the imagination to find him a Marvel hit in the role of Doctor Strange.

When brilliant neurosurgen Dr Stephen Strange awakes from a serious car accident without the full use of his hands, he tries to find every means possible to recover, even pushing away support from fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), an old flame. His inability to accept his current predicament leads him on a journey to Nepal to find ‘The Ancient one’ (Tilda Swinton) who has helped another man make a full recovery.

As a man of science Strange finds it hard to take her advice and is skepitcal about the ‘magic’ of the mystic arts she performs. Little does Strange know that this newfound power will not only save his life, but also the whole world’s from the dark forces set to crush and consume Earth, under the command of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of The Ancient One.

Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson and team have brought the intriguing Steve Ditko character to life, helped by some excellent casting in Cumberbatch who is as egotistical and narcissistic in the role as he is very funny. There is a superb script to enjoy and some genuinely hilarious retorts, as Strange tries to navigate this magical new world with sarcasm and scientific doubt.

Swinton adds the gravitas required for a key spiritual teacher and is faultless as she is vulnerable in the role – and equally amusing. However, it’s Strange’s quips at the expense of po-faced librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) that steal the main laughs – the running joke being that the ex-surgeon thinks he is a funny man when clearly he is an acquired taste.

McAdams also gets in on the laughs to relieve her character’s tense interactions with ‘spiritual’ Strange upon his return, and can be counted on for a solid performance in everything she does. There is also an assured turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, another pupil who rejects the use of the dark powers in healing others.

Hannibal actor Mikkelsen fails to disappoint yet again as the bad guy, with his steely gaze intact and laudable focus on the mission. The film’s fight scenes are also very well choreographed, with a good balance between action and character development throughout.

Derrickson’s mind/eye-bending set, like something from Christopher Nolan‘s Inception, keeps the fantasy morphing and fresh as we navigate it’s Esher-like space before entering another plane. The effects are highly impressive, as is the creativity poured into them – just witness skeptic Strange’s first experience through the astral plane, which is like riding a psychedelic rollercoaster.

Doctor Strange makes for a promising entry into the Marvel world for the uninitiated – and stay to the very end of the credits for both sneak peaks of what’s to come, involving other Marvel heroes. Some of the slower parts of the film go unnoticed because Cumberbatch always commands a presence and is immensely enthralling to watch.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Star Trek Beyond ****

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In a moment of irony right at the start of the latest Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) admits things have started to feel a little ‘episodic’ aboard the USS Enterprise, angling for a desk job in Top Brass. This could be said of the film franchise, regardless of a J.J. Abrams reinvigoration of it in 2013.

This Justin Lin (of Fast & Furious directing fame) version keeps the series zinging along in its own nebula of cosmic chaos but grounds it with some compelling character relationships, plus a generous touch of nostalgia and fun.

When a rescued crew member reports that her ship has been destroyed and her crew taken hostage, James T. Kirk and his crew, Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Doctor ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban), Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott (Simon Pegg) venture back out into space, but become stranded and divided on an alien planet. With no means of communication, they must work together to reunite and find a way to get back home.

The same cast returns three years on, having already convinced us of their credentials back in 2013, and not failing to engage us again with a solid combination of solidarity and fun. They are helped by a script penned by Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung, with the smart quips certainly having that trademark Pegg sarcasm.

The best lines are delivered by Urban as Bones, who comes across as the funniest, unfunny guy of the moment, constantly sticking his space boot in it with pure relish for us. Pegg naturally reserves some humorous lines for Scotty too, though assisted by an unusual comedy sidekick in Sofia Boutella as warrior rebel Jaylah who rebuffs his comments and is perhaps the most striking and exciting character in this episode.

Qunito’s Spock still has an aura of understated wisdom and awe about him. The actor has made this iconic character his own, reiterated by the defining moment he hears news from home of his mentor (played by the late Leonard Nimoy). In fact, in a moving note, it’s good to see the late Anton Yelchin back as Chekov one last time.

Idris Elba makes an appearance as the token baddie Krall, though is virtually unrecognisable until the very last battle scenes. Still, his character has a nice story arc, like all the others, allowing us to connect with them on a deeper level and care about their personal and collective troubles. Again, another success of the film is its big emphasis on ‘team spirit’, which doesn’t require you to be a Trekkie or to have seen the other films to fully engage. It is a standalone space ride of thrilling entertainment.

With gravity-defying effects – some nauseating, like revisiting Nolan’s Inception, this film’s momentum carries you along in a whirl, while pausing to address a character’s reaction at any single moment. This great marriage of sci-fi fantasy and characters we care about will guarantee the Star Trek movie franchise lives much longer and prospers.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Alice Through The Looking Glass (3D) **

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The wonder that is Lewis Carroll returns with the loveable Alice in Wonderland characters, but minus his clever, quirky storytelling in director James Bobin and screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s 3D creation, Alice Through the Looking Glass. Thankfully, the visuals capture the imagination and deflect from the lacklustre adventure.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska returning) comes home from her sea travels on her late father’s ship to find her mother, Helen (Lindsay Duncan) being forced to sell the ship (and family business) or forfeit the family home. This threatens to end her independence and adventures.

Alice returns to Wonderland through a looking glass, only to discover that dear old friend Hatter (Johnny Depp) has gone into a deep depression because nobody believes his family are still alive. In order to prove they are and change the cruel course of history, Alice must ‘borrow’ a vital time machine device from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and face an old adversary, Iracebeth, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

Bobin has big creative boots to fill in Tim Burton’s absence, and he does an adequate job here, gaining the most he can out of a sparse tale with the acting talent on offer. However, the fault lies more on the writing side. Although Hatter’s family demise is interesting – as is the family breakdown and back story of another key character, there just doesn’t seem to be enough to carry the film past the eye-boggling visuals.

It needs to be brain-bending too, translatable to youngsters but fascinating for adults. The key being main character Alice and why she feels compelled to put it all on the line to uncover Hatter’s mystery and save her own sanity. It just feels too superficial, lazily aimed at the effects-hungry youngsters who should not be underestimated for craving substance either.

That said the likes of Depp, Cohen and Bonham Carter fill the story void, each expertly portraying a wonderful animated character, though lacking the narrative space to fully blossom as we are whisked away on the next whiz-bang effects sequence to solve the Hatter riddle. Wasikowska is again commendable as headstrong Alice who is crushingly vulnerable and immature at times – hence retreating into Wonderland.

Attempting to tackle Alice’s personal struggles, including her mental health and society’s expectations of privileged women of that time is stuff of another more ‘grown up’ film version. However, Alice does wake up in an institution so these aspects are still very relevant and lacking the explanation they deserve – the kids will still ask why she’s bed bound. Just as well the arresting visuals come to the film’s rescue to stop you spending any more time contemplating this oversight.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a feast for the imagination, so the design team has well and truly done its job. It’s Carroll’s eccentric storytelling that’s woefully missing, even while revisiting the individually unique characters.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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X-Men: Apocalypse (3D) ***

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Yet more superhuman powers on show at the hands of futuristic franchise director Bryan Singer and a plethora of characters to indulge in for fans, X-Men: Apocalypse (3D) serves as the next episode in the story saga quite adequately. Even though it has perhaps the most simplistic plotline to date, it does pack a lot in. Some might argue too much.

The world’s first mutant En Sabah Nur or ‘Apocalypse’ (Oscar Isaac) who accommodates powers of subsequent mutants awakes from his tomb, set to put the Earth back to its basic state under his rule. He plans to do this with the help of four henchmen mutants – one of whom is a familiar face. It is up to Professor Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) students, present and past, to stop the Apocalypse.

Singer emerses us in the powerful world of the mutant once more – and that of the Professor’s mind that takes its biggest beating so far this time around. The director is always reliable for creating a grand spectacle, and fans will not be disappointed again in their creative master’s output – even though some of the earlier effect feel a tad under developed. That constant battle to live in harmony with the humans is also there.

The problem lies with the average plot. Although a promising villain, all Apocalyse appears to do is arrive, ‘pose’ and say something menacing, like some angst-y lead in a music band’s pop video. There never seems to be enough dramatic rage to really fear this character’s wrath and full potential. In fact that’s just it about the film; it lacks potential as a strong standalone. Indeed, there are the thrills of seeing the gang back together in one cause – well, a big thrill for fans of one particular character who does hop it as soon as he’s cause a bit of mayhem. This is where the films are strongest when the mutant crew stand side by side.

It could be said that Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has too little to do in this, short of be the new recruits’ pin-up. However, she does leave the stage open for us to get to know the newer characters like powerful Jean Grey (Sophie Turner from Game of Thrones), endearing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and troubled Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), as well as enjoy more zany antics from resident comedy mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters). And this film still has a lot of humour that nicely counterbalances the personal struggles of those new characters given the run-time to show their inner conflicts. As for the oldies, it is much more of the same to the point of character fatigue.

Apocalypse, though perfectly watchable, should feel like the beginning of the end (with more episodes to come) and invigorate the series. It really does feel like the emphasis lies firmly on the youthful new characters’ shoulders to keep things fresh as the mutants (oddballs) struggle to fit in with society again – something that the viewer will always empathise with and that the saga always gets right.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Ratchet and Clank ***

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Unless you’re a PlayStation fan, the names Ratchet and Clank will fail to register. They are, however, the established animated stars of a sci-fi gaming franchise and now, of a family movie of the same name. Gamers will find nothing new with the big-screen outing. But kids seem to respond to the characters, which are made for a big-screen adventure. Just as well as this is all it takes to will them – and the film – along on its (rather predictable) trajectory.

Squirrel/cat cross Ratchet (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) works at a garage but longs for the day he can join the much lauded Galactic Rangers who defend the Solana Galaxy. He gets his chance to try out for the crew but fails to impress.

Meanwhile, an evil alien called Chairman Drek (Paul Giamatti) is intent on destroying all the planets, with the help of a robotic army created by sidekick Dr Nefarious (Armin Shimerman). One defective robot called Clank (David Kaye) encounters Ratchet, and the two join forces to stop Drek on his dastardly mission.

This rehash of the popular gaming plots is both a comfort and a curse – great to see something familiar played out on film but lazy in ideas when the writers really needed to deliver fresh ones to rival a Pixar production, say. In its defence, they have merely recreated the environment fans are used to seeing Ratchet and Clank in, so it’s hardly surprising either.

Like all family films, everything is on speed, including the leads. Thankfully, the studio decided not to cash in on family 3D ticket prices or they would have had to dish out painkillers afterwards for the oldies. It also means small kids can enjoy the frenetic pace without tackling over-sized 3D specs throughout.

Though the film delivers absolutely nothing new – in fact, it’s like watching a hyper-animated Star Wars version of WALL.E at times, it does have some funny lines and observations to keep adults sane and chuckling. For example, the culture of texting every detail of one’s existence gets a ribbing here, though the joke becomes as tired as Dad’s puns in the end.

Ratchet and Clank themselves cannot fail to be likeable, with the latter and his grounded principles a great role model for the kiddies and sporting new converts straight after the viewing – much like WALL.E did. Drek and Dr Nefarious are carbon ‘baddie’ copies from other films but have enough collective villainy to satisfy the average plot – and Giamatti and Shimerman obviously had fun bringing them to life.

Ratchet and Clank is an enjoyable but too safe reproduction (in effects and plotline) designed to introduce newbies to the characters – as the ending suggests a follow-up is on the cards. They do get you on side straightway with their infectious enthusiasm to put wrongs to right. Now we’ve met them, can we please give our unlikely heroes a meatier, more substantial adventure to go on next time around?

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Captain America: Civil War (3D) ****

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Government bureaucrats are meddling again – this time with the Avengers. Ironically, mirroring sentiments of the Brexit brigade, the new Captain America: Civil War (3D) film sees the super-powered brethren divided when asked to conform to a set of rules drawn up by several countries, after their antics get out of control. The film then asks its Avenger players – and you – to choose sides. Cue big clash scene then confrontation with the real villain. It sounds like a familiar format (trouble brews, send in the Avengers), but Civil War is bursting with action, drama and genuine character individuality.

When another incident involves Avengers collateral damage and lives are lost, the global nations put pressure on the group to sign a document of accountability, to be headed by a governing body. This divides opinion at Avengers HQ, resulting in two camps: Steve Rogers/Captain America (against) verses Tony Stark/Iron Man (for). The other Avengers must chose sides, while the real culprit behind the atrocities still roams free.

There is a lot more happening in Civil War than previous films like Age of Ultron (2015). Marvel’s notorious characters are each given breathing space to reveal more of their personalities in reaction to the big decision. Naturally, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron man (Robert Downey Jr.) take centre-stage as team leaders. In return for exposing the characters we get greater satisfaction, plus a very real sense of what’s at stake when the two sides square up.

The fight scenes are some of the best cinematic Avengers ones so far, still incorporating flying bodies and colourful debris, but allowing momentary pauses for character commentary, while neatly setting the scene for the following Infinity War films (2018). There is a massive thrill seeing your favourite Avenger ‘play fighting’ with its peers in a playground-like brawl at an airport, and guessing whose power trumps another’s.

On a more serious note, the ultimate scuffle between Captain America/Steve Rogers and Iron Man/Tony Stark feels like watching sibling rivalry with deeper, more damaging elements at play. This ugly standoff questions the boundaries of loyalty – and to whom? It’s a fascinating subject matter for fans.

The returning Avengers cast of Evans, Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Sebastian Stan (Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Don Cheadle (War Machine), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda/Scarlet Witch), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) and Frank Grillo (Crossbones) pull out all the stops to give this saga an enormous amount of the wit, tension and natural energy.

Newcomers Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther and Tom Holland as all-new Spider-Man do a fine job of bringing their comic-book characters to life, so it’s hard not to feel excited at the end for the Black Panther solo outing, also expected in 2018.

Holland has the biggest chore to convince us that we need yet another Spidey depiction but notches up enough laughs in this, and more than holds his own in his first meeting with Downey Jr.’s wise-cracking Stark. Still, you can’t help but think what Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker could have delivered though. It does feel like Holland has studied his predecessor’s portrayal closely.

It’s still down to a touch of Downey Jr. charisma to be the main catalyst. Evans’s all-American hero icon is forever dutifully composed but again, feels very wooden and two-dimensional, even with a personal bereavement story to deal with. Olsen’s uncredited Wanda in The Winter Soldier (2014) steals the thunder, especially with her intriguing relationship with Vision. For sheer comedy value, Rudd’s Ant-Man is hilarious, especially in the airport scene, keeping interest ticking along for the forthcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp, again out in 2018.

Daniel Brühl of Rush fame has the task of being lone villain Zemo among all the Avengers, stirring up the pot in the background but still managing to have an intriguing back-story to hand when needed. Brühl is always solid in his roles, so no surprises here.

The Russo Brothers, responsible for the direction of The Winter Soldier are showing their impressive expertise in tackling the plethora of Avenger characters in an intelligent and sophisticated fashion, making the two-part Infinity War series sequel to Age of Ultron – and introducing Josh Brolin as eagerly anticipated supervillain Thanos – a very exciting prospect in their very capable hands.

Captain America: Civil War is the smartest Avengers film to date and serves as a well-made introduction to the Marvel characters for any newbies. New cast members and old-timers do not disappoint, even with a lot of personalities at stake. Though Evans is now embedded as Captain America, in this reviewer’s opinion, the jury is still out as to whether he was the best possible choice opposite the Downey Jr. dynamo, especially when he headlines his own film once again. Thank goodness for the other Avengers.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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