Justice League **

Fans aside, for the rest of us, there is no competition: both DC Comics and Marvel have some iconic characters that are perfect of big-screen adaptation. Sometimes they fair better in their own film, like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and Iron Man and Captain America. Other times getting them all in one flick just means too many superhero egos to deal with/ or not enough development to care. DC Comic’s latest ensemble, Justice League, is the latter.

In this story, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) must quickly recruit a superhero team – including The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – to combat a newly awoken enemy after three powerful boxes to gain ultimate apocalyptic power. Part of this feat means Batman must face an old ‘nemesis’, Superman (Henry Cavill).

The thought of Batman facing Superman again, after the super dark and abysmal concept of Batman vs Superman last year, is enough to stimulate excitement for Justice League. Director Zack Snyder has a ‘second chance’ to get their power play right. The moment they meet again, however, is a damp squib, as Affleck’s Batman just feels tired. Admittedly, part of the attraction of The Dark Knight’s appeal is he has no super powers so there must come a point when the weariness sets in and it’s time to retire Alfred too (here, played by Jeremy Irons once more).

The only superhero acts as the vital glue in this is Wonder Woman, with Gadot a one-woman force but ‘missing’ a lot more costume than in her solo film this year. Are things that desperate that we have to resort to low-level, up-skirt shots of the only female character?

The only characters that are mildly interesting in addition to the female lead are The Flash and Aquaman. That said the former becomes the film’s token joker character, when his eccentricities are interesting enough to explore further, and the latter is the resident Scandi eye candy that also keeps the status quo light and entertaining but has little substance apart from that.

The other dominant force that shrouds any development in the central superhero characters is the relentless CGI – some of it not so impressive too. This is a Snyder film after all – albeit it the director had to make a swift departure at the end due to personal circumstances. Those who find the overuse of CGI in a film nauseating will cringe watching this, to the point that the effects are actually the lead character in the frame in the action moments, possibly masking the flimsy narrative and many plot holes.

Overall, Justice League is a bit of a lackluster stew. DC Comics had to get them all together, but unlike the Marvel Avengers, they just seem awkward and unconvincing together – teamwork definitely does not make the dream work here. Keep watching the credits for a big reveal… Maybe the Justice League has had a bumpy start. Now they have worked together, they need another screen outing to prove themselves…

2/5 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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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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