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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Earth To Echo ***

earth_to_echo

Each generation needs its own ‘E.T.’ to believe in, to feed little dreams of friendly alien life out there. Cameraman-come-debut-feature-director Dave Green’s PG-friendly flick introduces us to Echo, a more mechanical but still very organic being that also channels today’s youngsters’ gadget obsession.

A neighbourhood is being phased out to make way for a highway, and the residents are getting ready to leave. However, after receiving a bizarre series of encrypted messages, a group of kids embark on an adventure with an alien who needs their help to return home.

The thing about Earth to Echo – however pleasing to watch – is there are too many parallels to J.J. Abrams’ successful Super 8 (2011) in tech terms and not enough alien character building like WALL.E (2008) to really develop a connection with tiny Echo, or even to care enough whether he gets home. True, he has the cute robotic doe eyes to get you smitten. However, those expecting proper E.T. days of alien bonding might be slightly disappointed that the headlining star gets limited screen time.

This film is all about kids’ early adoption of gadgets – in particular, mobile phones (like some 91-minute 3D advert for such in fact). If parents wonder what kids get up to using their handsets, this film enlightens you as to how tech-savvy our youngsters really are. There’s always a gleeful moment to be had with such films when the kids outsmart the oldies in finding the clues and solving the mystery – that’s a given here, and Earth to Echo is like some great latter-day treasure hunt that’s really engrossing: You can’t help but be impressed by the young characters’ knowledge. There are trappings of WALL.E morality to be had in that we humans need to be less wasteful and more recycling conscience, which the kids will lap up but adults will inwardly groan at the virtual finger wagging about the state of the planet being left for our kids.

There are also some confident performances from the leads Teo Halm, Astro, and in particular the ‘resident dweeb’ and overweight kid, Reese Hartwig as Munch. And no pre-tween/early-teen film would be complete without a hint of romance in the air – all PG approved, as the leads deal with changes in every department. Enter Ella Wahlestedt as the girl-next-door everyone wants to ‘slow dance with’, that combination of tough, smart and leggy-blonde that all boys dream of. With all the standard elements in play, it’s a carbon-copy of many other sci-fi kids films at play – and in 3D that works well with flying objects at times but is irrelevant most others.

Earth to Echo is a solid dip into kiddie sci-fi for Green and one that will be all too familiar to make its mark. Its overriding impression is ‘just what would we all do without technology’? Sit around and talk to one another perhaps? Welcome, parents, to the multi-tasking generation of little sleuths! Earth to Echo is very enlightening in this respect if nothing else.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Oblivion ***

The future of mankind is ripe and fertile filmmaking ground, always holding some potential intrigue and hopefully throwing up new questions about our possible destiny. The latter is a must in the sci-fi genre, but not to the extent that some questions leave you unnecessarily hanging, in terms of simple plot explanation.

It’s true to say Tron Legacy director Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion starring box office biggie Tom Cruise is very much an homage to all sci-fi greats, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and The Matrix to RoboCop, even mirroring Disney’s WALL-E with its strong environmental issues. Stylish and slick production design aside, it’s very much a case of déjà vu, turning into a ‘spot the original trope’ game. At least Cruise fans get value for money as the dedicated actor delivers an equally dedicated performance once again that’s hardly surprising.

Cruise is probe engineer Jack, living and working alongside partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) as an ‘affective team’ tasked with making sure battle-scarred and decimated planet Earth provides the last of its natural resources to the surviving population living in space. However, Empire State Building flashbacks, the harrowing rescue of crash victim Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and an encounter with the supposed ‘enemy’, the ‘scavs’, an underground group of resistance fighters, starts Jack questioning the real reasons behind extracting the remaining resources, as well as his own purpose.

Oblivion has an entertaining, timeless and ethereal quality to it that 2001 did, as well as a sinister, computerised control freak at the helm (voiced by Melissa Leo), pulling mankind’s strings and meddling with minds. What starts out as a foreboding viewing experience with all the mysteries intact and yet unexplored, plus Cruise as Jack, our willing and capable guide, begins to lose steam during its two-hour-plus run-time as you struggle to get past a mash-up role call of elements of legendary sci-fi flicks, all the while waiting (and longing) for some originality that would allow this film to join their ranks.

Even the true value and mindset of the ‘enemy’, led by the wise and all-knowing Beech (Morgan Freeman), feels inadequately underdeveloped, cultivating in the usual ‘safe’ monologue from the leader as to their journey and their goal, while visually, smacking of a re-worked version of Terminator films that depict the underground plight of mankind post the apocalyptic man-verses-machine nuclear war.

Admittedly, Kosinski is a big fan of gadgetry (and his love of bikes), allowing his agile A-list star to show off his acute action hero skills that made him a hit in Minority Report and Mission: Impossible. The writer-director also doesn’t miss a trick in reminding us of the importance of environment preservation and what could be lost by portraying Jack’s idyllic mountain lake hideaway that somehow has been left untouched (complete with drinkable fresh water) by the planetary conflict.

If one can get past the annoying question as to the primary reason for the systematic plundering of resources that isn’t quite satisfactorily answered at the end, Oblivion does offer another serene, futuristic outlook to be fully immersed in and simultaneously threatened by, as well as a keen platform to show off its talented cast. It’s just a shame that the script is somewhat lacking with important untied ends, sadly following the pitfalls of last year’s Prometheus. The question of mankind’s fate should always be a topic of lively debate post viewing, but not frustrated its audience. That said Oblivion is the kind of well-polished film that will undoubtedly do well, solely as it relies on Cruise to carry it up the box office chart, rather than providing a unique voice or idea.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Dr Seuss’ The Lorax **

Are we ready for yet another environmental lesson, boys and girls? As if the world of 3D animation had not fed enough morals to our little ones to drum the message home in a fun and colourful way, Illumination Entertainment brings out another based on the genius of Dr Seuss. Only this one comes with lots of polished, computer-generated, blustering buoyancy, minus all the illustrative charm and heart of the books, so fans will look hard to find traces of their hero.

12-year-old Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) lives in plastic, fantastic Thneedville, a wall-in universe with nothing of nature growing in it. He is smitten with Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift) who wishes she could have a real tree in her back yard, rather than the balloon-shaped ones. To win her affections, Ted goes on the hunt for her, outside city limits, learning the story of the greedy capitalist The Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) and the grumpy creature the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito) who tried with all his creature friends to protect the tree-laden world from impending destruction.

As charming and amusing as this kooky, light-hearted tale attempts to be, there is nothing of lasting substance about it, which kind of defeats its environmental purpose. It’s as consumable and throwaway as its commercial message, simultaneously criticised by the Lorax who recognises the danger of capitalism gone mad. The wise old thing with his distinguishable bushy moustache, faithfully brought to life by DeVito, certainly entertains, along with an army of loyal creatures, but his significance gets sidelined by the noisy, overenthusiastic and manic production values, where ultimately, the only things you remember are a few tempting candyfloss Truffala trees swaying in the breeze, Ted’s tween crush and gravity-defying biking skills, and a witty, sardonic dig at our bottled water obsession.

Big-screen adaptations of Dr. Seuss books have never had a wonderful track record (remember The Cat in the Hat and How The Grinch Stole Christmas), and The Lorax looks to be joining that list. Part of reason is the storytellers just don’t let the Lorax and his message take centre stage, revealing the true quirkiness and passion of a Dr Seuss tale. They feel the audience needs padding in the form of a lovesick brat who makes the whole thing about his hormonal needs, done in the predictably bland animated way of Illumination Entertainment’s The Despicables. Loyal fans of the 1972 book may see this animated adaptation as an over-inflated burst of vibrant commercial indulgence lacking any individual character like WALL-E that tackled the same global concerns, which is a shame as it’s charmingly told.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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John Carter ***

Writer-director Andrew Stanton tries his hand at live action this time, putting some of his fun Pixar magic from the likes of award-winning Finding Nemo and Wall-E into John Carter, an other-worldly adventure staged on Mars – or Barsoom, as adapted from Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs’s work, A Princess of Mars. Whatever faults this film has, it does something that the dull Cowboys and Aliens from last year tried and failed to do; marry Western and sci-fi genres and the analogies between American civil war history between cowboys and Indians far better, opening up the Barsoom landscape that looks like Arizonan plains to a wider audience.

The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including green-skinned Tharks led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the Heliumians and their science-loving and beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse after a warring faction led by a Zodanga fighter named Sab Than (Dominic West), controlled by immortal, shape-shifting Therns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), fight with the Heliumians, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.

John Carter, solidly depicted by virtual unknown this side of the Atlantic, Tarzan-looking Friday Night Lights TV star Kitsch, is an all-American anti-hero turned hero that you want to rally behind. The plot of a stubborn, greedy man ‘coming of age and wisdom’ is an all too familiar one that still has mileage here for the non-Burroughs fan, while satisfying our curiosity about Man’s voyage and hopeful life discoveries on another planet in our solar system.

John Carter is also beautifully visual and creative in its scenery enough to capture and distract you from the fairly thin premise and weakly portrayed passions of why the factions are at war. Naturally, the lack of water seems to be the only key issue that both planet and Martian has, and the story leaves the door open for a further solar system exploration into this. But even this major problem isn’t necessarily clear until cone-headed Shang mentions it. And yes, the environmentalists out there will smile at the filmmakers’ sense of purpose at highlighting our own planetary dangers in this respect.

Kitsch and Collins are both Amazonianly striking in this with a playful banter, teasing enough for adults to know the presence of sexual chemistry, and for children to find entertaining. Stanton injects a camp element into the whole affair too, allowing you to forgive its singularly B-movie overtones. However, much this film rips off classic sci-fi elements from Star Wars, Star Trek, Xena: Warrior Princess and the recent Avatar films, with the Tharks long-limbed appearance, there is nothing but fun and fantasy to be hand here in equal 3D measure – but nothing fresh on the Barsoom horizon either. And a medallion discovery that serves as the porthole between worlds is hardly imaginative either, even if we soon delight in drawn-out moments for laughs of watching Carter first leap and bound over the Barsoom terrain, mimicking an Earthling spaceman minus his suit.

John Carter the film has the unenviable task of filling in the back-story of the Barsoom history while keeping a sense of adventure burning in the run-time. What it fails to do with any real substance with the latter it makes up for in the former as you cannot deny wanting to explore more of the new world you are transported in and the origins of its beings. In this sense, Stanton and co have created the structure of another intriguing universe and history, but unlike Cameron’s Pandora, Barsoom has been let down by the filmmakers’ flimsy concepts in this that feel underdeveloped in favour of fleshing out the main players, and there is no real sense of connection between human and alien – like between the Na’vi and Jake Sully – that would have pulled John Carter out of the grandiose B-movie league.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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