Fast and Furious 8 ****

As much as we all miss the late Paul Walker as the all-American boy Brian in the car-chasing series, Episode 8 proves the franchise hangs on muscle – in the human and auto sense, driven by Vin Diesel’s camp posturing as car nut Dom Toretto. It has even bigger biceps as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson flexes the ever-expanding pecks again as law-enforcing Hobbs. But as Toretto always says, it’s ‘family’ that keeps it together and the momentum on track once more, in more wittier ways than before.

When mysterious cyber villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) forces Toretto to join ranks with her against his ‘car family’ of wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Ludacris) and newbie member Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), the merry band join forces with Hobbs and unlikely ally, former nemesis Deckard (Jason Statham) to find rogue Toretto and stop him in his tracks. The question is what hold does Cipher have over him?

The latest saga has all the required throbbing engines, nubile ladies wearing ‘belts’ as skirts, sneers and jeers and testosterone-fuelled racing to prove a point that any fan expects. It also has the gravity-defying stunts, including the series’ most crackers one yet that involves breaking ice and Russian military hardware. Director F. Gary Gray is new to the F&F directing chair, but has stayed loyal to the franchise’s style that there is no obvious difference this time.

With a nice subtle nod to Brian when Toretto goes AWOL, the rest of the characters behave as billed – even Toretto in his new compromised position. The actor, who steals every scene he’s in though, is Statham – drawing on his comical turn in Spy (2015) and a blend of his Transporter/Expendables/Mechanic/Crank roles all in one gravelly delivery. The actor is certainly getting softer in his old age, the hard edges to his characters smoothening out – even with Deckard. Strangely, you will grow fond of him in the end.

Fans can expect a couple of old faces popping up throughout from previous escapades too – they just refuse to go away, nicely illustrating previous plots’ relevance to current events, so there is a lot of thrills to be had there, in addition to the collateral damage.

Get on board again for the ride with Version 8. Expect nothing new, just bigger, dafter ballsier fun with egos the size of tanks on the loose. This latest film just adds more fuel to the saga’s tank and keeps it running. Paul, you’d be proud.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Fast & Furious 6 ****

Like the characters in the franchise, director Justin Lin reassembles his trustworthy team of writers Chris Morgan and Gary Scott Thompson to pen another episode of the adrenaline-pumping, big-action smashing and testosterone-dripping Fast & Furious mayhem that throws reality and caution to the wind in Version 6. Rio’s favelas played host last time in 2011 and got royally destroyed.

This time it’s London’s city skyline and tourist spots’ turn in 2013, completely farcical for supposed high-speed car chases, considering the usual gridlock on the capital’s roads, whatever the hour and especially around Piccadilly Circus, but utterly enthralling once you’ve suspended total disbelief. Maybe it’s the arresting sight of the ever-increasing muscle mass of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson who reappears as beefcake lawman Luke Hobbs, or Vin Diesel’s ever-loyal, brooding and likeable Dominic Toretto’s vow to find out the truth behind lover Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) death that helps dispel what is in fact ‘nonsense’ if contemplated about too much. It’s definitely all of the above, plus a heady combination of sexuality, violence and petrol fumes, as well as the promise of more jaw-dropping, tight scrapes the cars/drivers take – oh, and a passing tank.

Now retired on their multi-million-dollar loot from the Rio heist, Toretto and Brian O’Conner (an older, wearier-looking Paul Walker) decide family is too important to continue in their risky line of speedy business, especially as there is a new edition to the extended Toretto rabble. Something big would have to entice the exiled criminals out of their Spanish bolthole. Hobbs pays Toretto a visit, showing him a photo of a ghost who has been resurrected, his ex, Letty, supposedly working for another motor-racing criminal gang headed by ex-military man Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). Hobbs asks Toretto for help in bringing down Shaw’s crew before they get hold of a multi-billion-dollar military asset. The prize is the promise of full pardons and rescuing Letty, hence reuniting the car-crazed family.

Bigger, bolder and more gravity defying than ever, Lin pushes the speedometer round further in this, with some astounding set pieces, including Spider-Man-style action leaps that hold no boundaries in thrill value. Daft as the script may sound in places – though it does perfectly compliment the walking, dunderhead bulk of Hobbs and Toretto in some of their deadpan exchanges with highly amusing results, Version 6 also offers up some exhilarating London shots and concrete-exploding decimation, plus memorable girl-on-girl action that would make any Tube commuter dive for the nearest tunnel/platform exit.

Diesel, Johnson and Walker aside – the latter of whom seems to blend into paler significance against the other two this time, and can only just rely on his baby blues to stand out among a charismatic bunch of characters, including the entertaining childish bickering from Tyrese Gibson as Roman and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges as Tej (“can you smell baby oil?”), it’s really the girls that finally pack the biggest punch. Kickboxing Gina Carano who made her impressive mark in 2011’s Haywire is copper Riley who thumps, kicks and pounds Rodriguez ‘s snarling Letty into touch, like some female re-run of the old Toretto-O’Conner rivalry. If their supple physiques are not enough to whet the appetite, the bevy of Gal Gadot as Gisele, Jordana Brewster as Mia, Elsa Pataky as Elena and Clara Paget as bad girl Vegh should satisfy no end as the girls take no prisoners on their own steam, while handling a steering wheel better than their male counterparts at times. Girl power oozes from every pore and is as infectious as Diesel and Johnson finishing off each man-mountain obstacle placed in their path. There’s even a hot-pant appearance from songstress Rita Ora below the arches of Admiralty Arch to enjoy.

Evans as Shaw makes for a far more believable and level headed despot in this too, away from the usual larger-than-life rogue, where high-tech technology and mind games certainly rule. This easily digestible Brit-born baddie nicely sets up the next for the forthcoming sequel, with help from Sung Kang as Han recklessly blazing around Tokyo, in a post-credit thrill not to be missed that possibly got the biggest applaud on the night.

That said fans of the franchise have a whole number of vehicles at their disposal to cheer at throughout, including ‘batmobile’ styled kit cars, a thundering tank and a climatic finale involving a large cargo plane and what seems like the world’s longest runway, as adversaries square up to each other in the hold. There is never a dull moment, even though Lin, similarly to that of The Transformer’s Michael Bay, may be guilty of employing too much colourful, whirling balls of CGI metal at times to recreate high-speed carnage. Also, there is the tedious dialogue of English gentrification that even defies the stereotype that the writers seem to believe is funny, including a supposed gag involving a runt of a toffee-nosed car salesman, Hobbs and Tej that could be a lot funnier but falls flat.

Fast & Furious 6 turns the franchise up another notch, injects more nitrate and lets rip, but lovingly, never ventures far from its familiar bonds that hold its assortment of mongrel characters together. As action films go, it races to the top of its league as events get more and more ridiculous and outrageous, but altogether, more satisfying. As newly installed director James Wan takes over the helm for Fast & Furious 7, he certainly his work cut out to top what Lin has accomplished with this one.

4/5 stars

By FilmGazer

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New Year’s Eve *

You have to worry when a film’s musical medley finale is far more entertaining than what you’ve just sat through. Another snag for the filmmakers of the equally disappointing Valentine’s Day last year is their biggest star, Robert De Niro, is woefully miscast in the sombre role, when his true comedic talent is apparent in the end sing-song.
You’ve guessed it: it’s nearly ball-dropping time in Times Square, New York City, and a bunch of characters have all sorts of New Year’s resolutions to make and keep, all to do with some form of love: forgiveness, compassion, opening their hearts to a different point of view etc. We follow the 24 hours before the ‘greatest reset button in life’, New Year’s Eve and the big countdown.
Director Garry Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate haven’t learnt their lesson from last time, it seems – or they’re under contract to see this limp franchise through to the bitter end. The problem isn’t attracting an impressive cast – as that’s what the film’s main draw is, what with De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, Zac Efron, Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Katherine Heigl and even Jon Bon Jovi on board: One could cynically argue that it’s the easiest money they’ve earned all year, so of course, they’ve signed up. Perhaps it’s their collective love for the Big Apple at this time of year, too?
What is highlighted is too much of a good cast, without proper mini plot development in each scenario just produces a damp squib, with characters we don’t much care for, even if we enjoy seeing the famous faces together in one film. Their characters’ trials and tribulations amount to padding until the countdown, with some great musical numbers from Bon Jovi intermixed for fans. Hence, when the big moment finally comes we should be right there with them all, feeling that renewed hope of a great new year ahead, rather than wishing to reset our own time button to two hours earlier.
We see De Niro wasting away – both in body and mind with such a character; Heigl as the usual ‘bridesmaid and never the bride’ – again; Berry like a worn out extra off ER; Swank running around and mounting her own personal crusade – complete with the ever perfect curl in her hair; and Pfeiffer trying to convince us she’s really plain Jane and uninteresting – well, the latter part is true in this film, even with Efron and his cheeky charms trying to inject some life into her and their scenario of completing her wish list, as though she’s going to snuff it at midnight.
And no film set in New York would be complete without Jessica Parker running around in killer heels, like she’s doing a small SATC Carrie cameo, and forgotten she’s actually playing a concerned mum to teen Hailey (Abigail Breslin) who just wants to be kissed. Valentine’s Day star Ashton Kutcher plays disinterested New Year’s loather Randy in this, rather than over-enthusiastic flower man Reed in the 2010 film. He’s really only there to set up a singing scene for Glee’s Lea Michele in a knockout red number, and gets to slob it out in PJs, like he’s just got out of bed to make a lacklustre appearance in this.
As a result of too many characters and not enough investment in each, New Year’s Eve also suffers from a frustrating lack of explanation, such as what’s Claire Morgan’s (Swank) deep bond with cop friend Brendan (Chris ‘Ludacris‘ Bridges), and why is she estranged from her father, Stan (De Niro) – among others. To be honest, should we really care?
Apart from Bon Jovi rocking the house and a great vocal performance from Michele, Sofía Vergara – who’s like an annoying Cheeky Girl at the start – makes things hot and steamy in chef Laura’s (Heigl) kitchen, as well as steals the only comedic moments as man-crazy sous chef Ava from Heigl, rendering the latter’s usual comedy presence void.
There are a number of other actors and situations going on, one or more of which ought to strike a chord with whoever is watching. Although the filmmakers’ intentions are all good, the execution results in contrived, groan-inducing morality and over simplicity in parts that just undermines the candour of the lessons learnt. Let’s hope there’s not another date in the Western calendar that Marshall and Fugate can get/have got their hands on – even if it means they keep a few big names in easy work.
1/5 stars
By @FilmGazer

Fast & Furious 5: Rio Heist ****

Petrol heads unite; it’s the return of throbbing muscle cars tearing up the streets and desert highways with a bunch of thrill-seeking car enthusiasts at the wheel. Well, kind of, but the noise and adrenaline is certainly still there in full dramatic force.

Once you’ve adjusted your ears, seasoned Fast franchise director Justin Lin throws in a dusty desert chase at the very beginning for good measure for fans who have been waiting a couple of years for the next instalment. Apart from trying to work out (spoiler) how a car can flip a coach and still stay intact, lap up this incredulous first stunt because the latest film has turned all Jason Bourne/Ocean’s Eleven on us, and is more about a major heist and escaping authority in Rio, plus the gang’s relationship values, than the motorised chases/races the series is best loved for.

That’s not to say that the filmmakers have never placed a lot of importance on family in past films, but this one drums it home (schmaltzy ending aside), often in wholly sincere (and quite amusing) moments of self reflection, with the aid of much-loved characters, Dom (Vin Diesel), Brian (Paul Walker), Mia (Jordana Brewster) and extended family.

Indeed, returning to the franchise’s successful relationship core Fast 5 sees Dom busted from jail by Brian and Mia who go on the run in the favelas (shanty towns) of Rio, before reuniting with some old personalities – one of the film’s major joys – for one last $100 million dollar heist. This is not just another ‘get rich quick plan’, though, but a skewed serving of justice to take down the local corrupt kingpin masquerading as a legitimate businessman. However, adding to the ‘misfit family’s’ woes is Rottweiler US federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) who carries out his job to the letter and is determined to hunt down and bring Dom to justice.

A serious suspension of disbelief is needed with a lot of the action scenes, but that’s not to say you don’t get the same entertainment value out of seeing our heroes narrowly miss objects by the skin of their teeth. Each energetic and well-edited set piece is set to a pumping Samba flava to depict the colour, vitality and spirit of Rio. It’s equally galvanising to see Diesel and Walker united in the driving seat once more, a little older and wiser, but just as tightly-sprung and testosterone-fuelled as before. In fact this film bathes in the latter, like an overpowering whiff of cheap aftershave that seems to rub off on the women, too. Mia has become more hard assed and hands on in this, but still keeps a dignified femininity. Sadly, even though this is set in Rio, you have to wait some time before the beautiful bodies lounging over hot throbbing bonnets come into view. Still, the willowy Gisele (Gal Gadot) returns for another job in biker leathers with a metal beast throbbing between her legs, and later in a miniscule bikini to whet the appetite first.

But by far the most gleefully splendid moments are those with Johnson as hunter Hobbs in the frame, especially the iconic one when the two ‘muscular man mountains’ of Diesel and him collide, which is worth the lack of car chase scenes alone, and could be one of cinema’s defining altercations. Indeed, Johnson is quite formidable in presence and gusto in this, but his character has a noticeable, fragile human side that adds to the intriguingly fine balance between good and bad in the narrative. There are a lot of guns and violence, so the film is at the far-end of its 12A rating, bordering more on 15.

Fast 5 also sees the welcome return of Dom’s nearest and dearest, including smooth-talking Roman (Tyrese Gibson), practical Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), quick-thinking Han (Sung Kang) and banished Vince (Matt Schulze), a ploy to bring delight fans back – and yes, Han didn’t die in Tokyo Drift, it seems. Gibson and Ludacris provide the comedy act, signalling the highs and lows and camaraderie of the whole operation. Apart from the final grand gravity-defying and breath-stopping car chase through Rio that all players mightily deserve to participate in, considering the otherwise driving drought, there are some energising on-foot chase scenes and shootouts within the twisting pathways of the favelas to indulge in, as well as the ever charismatic Joaquim de Almeida as kingpin Reyes, another Latin baddie/businessman role that he effortlessly moulds and delivers with total credibility.

If you are expecting high revs and racing meets, you may be a tad disappointed with Fast 5. However, the characters, with the welcome addition of Johnson, will quickly reel your interest back in and get you on board because of their strong sense of values and purpose, and because we just love to witness them in action. Make sure you stick around for the end of the credits, though, for two nice surprises… Fast 6 might be being tuned up as we speak, and ready to be rolled out any time soon. As they say, ‘where there’s demand, there’s supply’, and this franchise will shoot up the box office chart because it’s undemanding and fiercely electrifying entertainment.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

No Strings Attached – 3*

After playing such an intense and psychologically disturbed young woman in Black Swan, Oscar nominee Natalie Portman deserves a bit of light relief, and Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached offers just that – for both actor and viewer alike. Instantly, it has critics convulsing at the very thought of ‘yet another romcom’, and even more so with notorious ‘film-jinxer’ Ashton Kutcher at the helm. Although it falls into the many clichéd traps of the genre (for example, girl and boy denying the flaming obvious), it actually has some amicable and candid qualities that make it more appealing than the usual run-of-the-mill offerings of recent months.

It takes the ago-old premise of the iconic When Harry Met Sally’s ‘friends with benefits’, and ramps up the ‘sex only’ part. Only this time, it’s the woman who’s more sexually active and nonchalant about the relationship, with the man wanting more. But the female’s guard must come down for the ‘rom’ to work its magic. Therefore, that’s were it plays to the genre’s predictability, which is why some are having an unsurprising pop at it. The fact is, No Strings Attached does keep you pleasantly entertained because you can’t help but like all the characters involved, the majority of which have a realistic stance on relationships. It also serves up how most of the genre’s fans want their romcom to play out – obviously, but with more credible beings that don’t live in an idyllic microcosm of affluent smugness.

Kutcher plays Adam, an aspiring writer who’s still stuck in rut in a PA job for a Glee-style TV show. Portman is Emma, the girl he tried to indecently proposition years earlier at summer camp. Emma has since grown up into a stunning commitment-phobe and workaholic doctor. After discovering that his successful screenwriter Dad (played by Kevin Kline) has been banging his ex, a drunken Adam grabs his phone and goes through his address book, until he finds ‘no strings attached’ sex for the night. Emma is the lucky lady – although the deed happens the next morning as Adam was in an intoxicated haze. After a heated bed session before brunch, she and Adam decide to be ‘f*ckbuddies’ (the original title of Elizabeth Meriwether’s screenplay that was wisely changed). But love seeps in and spoils everything. On paper, it sounds totally predictable, but that’s the point, isn’t it?

What is a shock is Kutcher is a welcome surprise in this film, in a part that many of us would expect him to annihilate, especially since the release of the nauseating Valentine’s Day. He combines his ‘cute’ and fun-loving aspects and good looks (he’s obviously been working on his upper body tone with image-conscious wife Demi) with an altogether pathetic, self-depreciating side that allow us to sympathise and openly mock him in equal measure. It’s the first time this critic has ‘got him’ in any role as he plays to his strengths. Admittedly, he has some fine, albeit under-used talent assisting him, with a supporting cast of Klein, Ludacris, Jake Johnson and Lake Bell.

Portman who has been emotionally stiff in past roles, unless she’s playing fragile and tormented, turns on a hidden charm offensive that ultimately dissolves her ballsy independent façade as Emma. She comes across as sharply witty, divinely adorable and decidedly un-clingy – every man’s dream, surely? Kutcher and Portman seem like an unlikely screen combination, especially with the height difference, but produce an incandescent coupling full of cynical but amusing banter, even though their characters suffer that one-dimensionality associated with the genre. There is a wonderful ‘time of the month’ moment, where Adam makes a period tape and delivers it and a box of donuts to a suffering Emma and her roomies to enjoy, which is actually quite touching.

Reitman has got his casting right in this, even if he doesn’t fully deploy all their talents, sparingly using those of comedy genius Klein and Cary Elwes as priggish dreamboat Dr. Metzner who believes he’s the best catch for Emma. However, the first issue is the beginning of the film, which is stilted and unconvincing as to how Adam and Emma become friends at all, let alone ‘friends with benefits’. Aside from their school meeting, they seem more like distant acquaintances that happen to keep bumping into each other. Would Emma even entertain allowing Adam into her life, if he called up drunk and asking for a bit of action out of the blue, or put him down as a freak? Still, Adam could have Emma’s number after all these years, especially as she was a teen crush…

Secondly, the writing isn’t quite as snappy and on a par with the likes of Apatow’s or Reitman Jr’s work, sloppily falling back on well-worn material and the odd inject of tired schoolboy humour (fingering jokes aside) – even if the latter is done with the biggest of hearts and winks. There is a teeth-jangling one-liner at the end that ends up destroying all respect the sassy leads had subsequently built up. But love is blind and soppy in the heat of the moment when someone wears their heart on their sleeve, so we can’t be too critical, can we?

Reitman makes sure all the loose ends are satisfactorily sown up in No Strings Attached. The Kutcher-Portman chemistry is left to react naturally in an almost loosely improv’d way, and fizzes away nicely in this amicable ‘buddy’ tale of the sexes, without bringing any unnecessary blushes to the cast with vulgar, cheap jokes that could creep into such a sexually-confident storyline. And even though the poster would have you think otherwise, the nudity and sex scenes are prudently done to enhance its ‘nookie-only’ subject matter, rather than turning it into a titillating smut fest. Portman fans traumatised by her sexually aggressive antics in Black Swan can be reassured that she reverts back to her exquisite self, albeit with a newfound sexual confidence and maturity. And Kutcher can finally be comfortable with a performance, too.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer