War For The Planet Of The Apes (3D) *****

 

If you’ve ever doubted viewing one of these films – as this reviewer has, this could be your introduction to one of the most thought-provoking ‘man verses beast’ films of present-day cinema. Through the magic of digital technology, War For The Planet Of The Apes manages to transport you from ‘human to ape’ then makes you question our species’ impact on nature around us. All of this comes to brew in a rocky microcosm of human suffering. It’s that powerful that is makes you think long afterward viewing. Throughout, you are too busy willing the apes to survive and save the planet.

Having followed Caesar’s journey from his intelligent ape origins, in the third chapter, he (Andy Serkis returning) and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel (played by Woody Harrelson). After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

Believe the hype: Serkis is superb in this, leaving no emotion unexplored, and becoming more ‘civilised’ and messiah-like than any human could hope to be. You are completely won over to his side, his morality and view on the world, along with his ‘apes in arms’ (Karin Konoval as Maurice, Terry Notary as Rocket and Michael Adamthwaite as Luca).

The most powerful scenes are Serkis’s Caesar verses Harrelson’s Colonel. Initially, both feel as though they are playing to stereotype, but both character arcs are way more subtle, surprising and ultimately satisfying than that, as both have darker and lighter shades to their nature, which the film always pauses to reflect on. These muted moments, however, are never to the detriment of the film’s urgency and pace. They merely add greater value.

There are also some wonderful companionship and group-bonding moments among apes – and ‘token’ primate, a young mute girl called Nova (Amiah Miller) who is there for ‘cute’ value and to shine a light on the apes’ sensitive nature. In scenes that resemble The Great Escape and Schindler’s List, the apes are resourceful, considerate and in destructible in what is thrown at them. It is all-engrossing. Director Matt Reeves and team never forget to lighten the emotional load, with a charmingly funny turn by Steve Zahn as the comedic Bad Ape, the character that actually makes the greatest progression in hindsight.

As for big-screen effects, some of the jungle scenes are spectacular, especially when Caesar firsts encounters the Colonel at the waterfall. Details that could have been lost in the dim tones are all present and alive, feral, even down to the emotions in the eyes between man and beast. This is a production that does not squander its budget, making use of every effect, production design and vista.

War For The Planet Of The Apes concludes in the only way possible, squeezing out one last emotional response from the viewer. As Hollywood endings go, it’s as expected, almost clichéd. However, the full impact of what you have just watched hits you like a tidal wave soon after. It’s the unexpected that renders War For The Planet Of The Apes one of the most powerful post-viewing experiences in a long time.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Spider-Man: Homecoming (3D) ****

Everyone who is interested in Spider-Man (and Marvel) films is looking forward to seeing new Spider-Man, Tom Holland, going solo on screen and in action. Thankfully, Holland held his own in last year’s Captain America: Civil War and he doesn’t disappoint in Homecoming.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s nemesis is Vulture (Adrian Toomes, played by Michael Keaton), who is also related to Peter’s love interest. Toomes has built a lucrative weapons empire that involves an alien power source, with all weaponry sold to the highest criminal bidder. Wanting to prove to his mentor, the great Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that he is Avenger material, Spider-Man goes after Toomes/Vulture, while trying to juggle life as a high-school student, with best friend, nerd Ned (Jacob Batalon), with being a superhero.

Homecoming is packed with fun and big action, and has some brilliant lines. The reason it works so well is Holland is as cheeky-chappie and quick-witted as big-timers, Keaton and Downey Jr., thanks to some great writing from Jonathan Goldstein and co. Admittedly, Andrew Garfield paved the way with a more ‘playful’ Spider-Man character, but Holland’s version feels less ‘troubled’ and more proactive like a meddling, naïve youngster should be. This nicely compliments Stark’s infantile antics, and actually renders the latter (almost) a ‘grown-up’ in this. That said an old flame makes a fun appearance half-way through and reinforces Stark’s unpredictability that fans so love.

There is also just one superhero in action verses an almost retro bad buy in Keaton’s character that doesn’t result in Marvel hero fatigue half-way through, with superpowers verses superpowers clashing. Here, it’s man (with webs, admittedly) verses man with gadgets. Therefore, the battles feel more bruising and energizing.

Cop Car director Jon Watts – who takes the directing helm for the first time here – has brought out Spider-Man’s human vulnerabilities, but rather than dwell on these like a Garfield-era hero would have, Holland’s incarnation refuses to let them get the better of him. In a way, it’s a little like watching Kick-Ass self-destruct at times but get back up again. Keaton is always better playing the villain – even his Batman was unhinged. It’s what the actor is best at and he can indulge once more here.

Along with some explosive action set-pieces, the well-crafted Homecoming is one of the best Spider-Man films yet, ending with one of the best lines of any film in a long time that will have you chucking a long time after. Stay for the ‘infomercial’ during the end credits too, for a little more Marvel titillation.

4/5 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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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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Alien: Covenant ***

After the lukewarm response to director Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus, there was real cause for concern with his latest instalment Covenant – did it have a new bite (no Alien pun intended). Thankfully, because of Michael Fassbender’s mysterious and creepy android David, Scott had a new terror on offer to the human crew.

It’s ten years on since the demise of the Prometheus crew, and another craft called Covenant with 2,000+ hibernating colonists is cruising through Space. After a malfunction, its crew is woken early and receives a signal from a nearby planet that suggests human life. They go to investigate and find a surprise from Prometheus on its surface. They also discover their worst nightmare still breeds: the alien.

Covenant follows the same trajectory as the other Alien films, while you wait for the first alien strike. However, where this film then differs is two forces of evil at play, the question being which is more imminently terrifying.

Fassbender as David – and more ‘empathetic’ Walter – is the driving force, as established in the very first scene, and shows the actor at his finest, playing a synthetic psychopath with shades of light and dark and keeping us grip. In fact it’s almost as though the alien is a sub plot of malice and the real disturbing question is man’s reliance on (and submission to) machine.

Praise too, to Fantastic Beasts actress Katherine Waterston as Daniels, the first serious Ripley contender since the earlier films. She has enough fight to take on David and the aliens and be the human saviour – or not, perhaps?

Covenant may not satisfy all fans, such as those wanting to see lots of alien attacks – indeed, Scott does make sure there are some gory chest (and back) bursting scenes, but it does inject new blood and purpose into the Alien series with the focus on character rather than effect. It’s still just a nail biting.

3/5 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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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 ****

doctor-strange

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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