Movie Review – The Fate of the Furious

Fast cars, ludicrous stunts and dumb dialogue – exactly what you’d expect from a Fast and Furious movie!

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

The Fast and The Furious franchise has returned for its eighth instalment, only this time it must continue its legacy without star lead Paul Walker. Walker’s absence set up quite the emotional impact in the previous movie, so I was curious to see where the series would head next. To my surprise, the series seems to be heading in the right direction… somewhat.

In The Fate of the Furious we re-unite with our beloved Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) who’s honeymooning with wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). A mysterious woman soon appears and lures Dom into becoming a hired terrorist, leading him to betray all those close to him. It’s up to our revhead compadres to figure what’s happened to the old Dom and save the world. Screw the C.I.A, who else would you trust, right?

Once again, the theme of family is a major player in this latest film. It’s been prevalent throughout the entire franchise, but while this is an important conceptual torch to bear, it only needs to exist in the background. We’ve seen the exact same situation in Fast 6 when Letty turned on her family. Now that we’re up to movie number eight, it’s kinda like beating a dead horse.

What makes a franchise everlasting is its ability to produce a range of memorable entries. With Harry Potter, the early films were a joyful introduction to the wizarding world, while the last films were far darker in tone. Each film in Fast and Furious feels like the same story just set in a different location around the world.

As the franchise unfolds, the one redeeming factor is that each new film grows in scale and strives to outdo the last. In the early days, the films were all about street racing, then drifting and then bank robberies. This has progressed to tank battles, the world’s longest airplane chase and driving Lamborghini’s from skyscraper into skyscraper. It’s ridiculous, but it’s what I fucking love. You can’t help but enjoy the spectacle, and thankfully The Fate of The Furious continues this to greater lengths.

This is ultimately why I would recommend seeing this on the big screen. The action sequences are mindless, but great to watch, and comic relief characters such as Roman (Tyrese Gibson) allow for some genuine laughs.

If people love something so much that they’re prepared to keep coming back again and again, why then would The Fast and the Furious bother to change its formula? But to become a truly great franchise, it needs to go beyond following a simple formula and be bold in its storytelling. I’m hoping for a ninth installment that either ventures into new territory thematically, or at least continues to amp up the level of ludicrousness in the action sequences. But for now, it’s time to enjoy some submarine car chases.

The Fate of the Furious is available in Australian cinemas from April 13

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017

Movie Review – Smurfs: The Lost Village

Our favourite little blue creatures are back on the big screen, but it’s starting to wear a little thin the third time around.

⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

Unlike the previous Smurf films, Smurfs: The Lost Village focuses on the most unique of these blue critters; the only female smurf, aptly named Smurfette (voiced by Julia Roberts). In a village filled with male Smurfs who each have a defining trait, Smurfette begins to feel out of place. Unlike her fellow villagers, Smurfette was created from a piece of clay by the evil wizard Gargamel (voiced by Rainn Wilson) and so she lacks a singular special skill. Naturally, this leads her on a journey to discover her identity. Throw in the possibility of other Smurfs existing in a place unknown and you can see exactly where this story is going…

What’s truly great about The Lost Village is the smooth 3D animation. Everything flows seamlessly, but it’s the large colourful displays during the action set pieces that shine the most. The scene where the Smurfs encounter a group of dragonflies is particularly noteworthy; each creature has been meticulously designed with unique colour traits. As a childhood fan of these characters, I can confidently say that the Smurfs translate well from their original hand drawn cartoon to CGI animation… but sadly, this is where the good stuff ends.

While I enjoyed the focus on Smurfette’s character arc, it felt as though the story lost (pun intended) it’s meaning along the way. What began as an interesting decision to tackle identity and one’s purpose in life, slowly shifted to basic storytelling: a village is found, Gargamel plans to capture the village, Smurfette and her friends must stop him… and that’s pretty much it.

Not only do you know how it’s all going to end, but the journey along the way is far too unoriginal to be even remotely engaging. In this sense it reminds me of the new Power Rangers, but where The Lost Village outshines that particular mess is in its character dynamics. There’s some well-crafted interactions between Smurfette, Clumsy, Brainy and Hefty that have hilarious outcomes. It’s just a shame that the relationships between these characters lose any sense of depth against a plot that doesn’t lend itself to exploring these little personalities.

There are reasons why we ultimately love children’s films. It’s because they’re not just films for children. We can still get the same feelings watching The Lion King now as we did 20 years or so ago. It’s why we’ll pay money again to see a live-action imagining of an animated film we’ve loved for decades. This is where The Lost Village is lacking. Parents, take your kids to see The LEGO Batman Movie instead. They’ll enjoy it. You’ll enjoy it. It’s a much better result for all.

Smurfs: The Lost Village is available in Australian cinemas from March 30

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – Ghost in the Shell

Why is it so difficult to take a concept made for TV and translate it into a feature film? Ghost In The Shell adds to a long list of failed adaptations, following in the footsteps of Power Rangers and Avatar: The Last Airbender.

⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

Based on the anime series, Ghost in the Shell explores a near future where humans have developed technology that allows for cybernetic enhancements. From increasing vision capabilities, to a robotic liver that can withstand any amount of alcohol, the boundaries of this technology are pushed to the limit. Soon young woman the Major (Scarlett Johansson) wakes to find she has become the first human integrated A.I., with a mechanical body that has been fused with her human mind.

I wish I could say that Hollywood has done justice to the original anime series of Ghost in the Shell, but if I could describe the motion picture version in one word, it would be lacklustre. The film opts to focus heavily on the Major (rather than the variety of characters featured in the anime), which may have worked if not for Johansson’s flat performance. The whole point of the movie is to show that the  Major is more than just a robot, and yet Johansson’s expression remains stone cold for the entirety of the film, making it very difficult to relate to her character. There’s been plenty of artificial intelligence based characters in films such as I, Robot and Aliens that have managed to show enough human emotion to allow us to care for them, but Johansson never brings any such warmth or charisma.

Backing up this dreary lead performance is a predictable and uneventful story where nothing of consequence ever really happens. Thankfully, a strong performance from Pilou Absaek as the Major’s partner Batou keeps the film from being completely unwatchable. The visual effects are also excellent in creating a realistic picture of our world thirty years from now. But overall, Ghost in the Shell is just another forgettable rehash of a great TV show.

Ghost in the Shell is available in Australian cinemas from March 29

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures 

Movie Review – The LEGO Batman Movie

Attention all movies. Always be yourself… unless you can be Lego Batman.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Josip Knezevic

Holy crap was this ever so fun to watch. You heard it here: go see The LEGO Batman Movie as soon as possible! I can’t believe how ecstatic I am to be sitting here writing this review, but OK, time to focus…

From the producers of The Lego Movie, LEGO Batman swiftly expands the Lego Universe to the city of Gotham, and by expand I really do mean expand. We witness the first on screen appearances of the most dangerous villains from the Batman franchise in Lego form. It’s a star-studded affair and it’s simply perfect.

When the credits rolled and my happiness levels peaked, I was surprised to see a total of 5 writers responsible for this magical Lego experience. It’s rare to see such a large team of writers work so well together. The sheer number of jokes per minute is staggering. This is quite possibly the funniest superhero movie ever made, with jokes that film buffs, Batman fans and basically anyone can enjoy.

Aside from the humour, LEGO Batman also tackles dramatic themes with the meaning of family and the fear of loss. Given how well this ties in with Bruce Wayne’s story, I’m surprised these ideas haven’t been previously explored in other films set in the Batman universe. It’s a refreshing approach and one that serves it purpose appropriately among all the jokes and spectacle of the animation.

Yes, LEGO Batman is predictable, but it doesn’t matter. You’re too busy enjoying yourself to care. It isn’t as smart as the original Lego Movie, but it has enough pizzazz to elevate itself as a standout film for 2017. It’s entirely self-aware and the special effects team do an outstanding job of creating the Lego world with a really high attention to detail.

I can’t wait to see The LEGO NINJAGO Movie due out at the end of the year, and I hope the creative team explore more multiverse interactions in the future. Bring on LEGO Avengers and Justice League!

The LEGO Batman Movie is available in Australian cinemas from March 30 

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Kong: Skull Island

Gorgeous retro posters and a star-studded line-up don’t stop Kong: Skull Island from missing the mark completely.

⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

In addition to all the rehashing Hollywood is doing these days, it has become very fond of something called the Cinematic Universe, thanks, no doubt, to Marvel’s business model. It wants every property and franchise to interconnect and speak to each other, often discarding relatively new iterations. Remember Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man? I don’t, and that was just 2 years ago. And now you’re telling me they’re doing another King Kong movie? What was wrong with the old one?

Nothing, of course. It just didn’t fit in with the plan. So here comes Kong: Skull Island, the brand new adventure that’s supposed to up the ante, raise the stakes and deliver on its promise to usher in a new Shared Universe with Godzilla. And if its marketing campaign is anything to go by, it should be a wild, thoroughly satisfying ride. But let me just say – it’s really, really not. This is a dumb old movie, quite possibly the Jurassic World of 2017.

It’s rather remarkable how little actually happens here, despite all the larger-than-life creepy crawlies the CGI puts on display. The great beast is revealed way too early, killing all suspense. There is an entire scene devoted to Kong tearing a giant squid to pieces, y’know, because he can. There is literally a standoff between Kong and Samuel L. Jackson as a horde of exploding helicopters rains down around them. And the cast. My word. Not for a long while have I witnessed such an expansive cast do absolutely nothing in an action movie.

Tom Hiddleston plays James Conrad, a tracker basically hired to sift through some sand and look off ominously into the distance, while Jackson’s army colonel Preston Packard huffs and puffs and tries to bring the ape down with toothpicks. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins play the scientists responsible for bringing everyone to the island in the first place. Brie Larson’s “photojournalist” does nothing but take pointless pictures and wear skin-tight tops. And, of course, there’s your token Asian presence, pencilled in by Jing Tian, who’s not even important enough for an introduction. Fifty points if you can tell me her name and what she does.

Kong, therefore, can’t rely on its human characters for any kind of support. The entire film is essentially a two-hour setup for the future and a needless reminder of the past, with Goodman babbling on about how the Earth actually belongs to prehistoric creatures and will become the stage for a mammoth showdown. Didn’t we hear all this in Godzilla (2014)?

What it does do well is deliver a few impressive action sequences – but then how many modern blockbusters don’t? Scenes in which Kong fends off numerous overgrown lizards are edited with urgency and pump some blood into the movie’s otherwise limp veins, but even they seem like hollow echoes of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) – a vastly superior giant gorilla picture.

What we end up with is a reboot that succeeds only on a superficial level, by shifting the timeframe of the story from the 1930s to the 1970s and doing away with the film crew and the damsel in distress. On a deeper front, Kong: Skull Island is one big mess, offering a pointless human element, some inadvertently laughable moments, and a genuinely underwhelming experience. 1933 Kong must be turning in his grave.

Kong: Skull Island is available in Australian cinemas from March 9

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 

Movie Review – Logan

A sick and slick flick. It’s my pick. See it quick!

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Cody Fullbrook 

Nowadays, actors who are cast as superheroes are blessed with the knowledge that they’ll be working that role for years… unless the franchise gets rebooted. Speaking of Spider-Man, it’s impossible to picture anyone else except J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and the same goes for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, who first appeared in X-Men, 17 years ago. Feel old yet? Well, Wolverine certainly does/is in Logan where he’s thrust into being a reluctant caregiver for both Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and a mysterious girl called Laura (Dafne Keen).

Even with eye lasers, magnetic powers and frog people, the X-Men films have been somewhat darker than other superhero entries, and Logan is easily the grittiest of all; perhaps even one of the most violent and grim of its genre. This is a Wolverine film like no other, as well as a Wolverine like we’ve never seen before. He is tired and beaten by life, and by other people.

Excluding some triumphant moments during the climax, there’s nothing glorious to be seen here. Logan doesn’t enjoy this journey and only continues it out of obligation or proving a point. Every single moment of temporary safety is punctuated by a catastrophe, such as a relaxing scene with friendly farmers concluding with a heartbreaking moment of violence and distrust. Logan, Laura and Charles bring pain wherever they go, whether it’s a gas station employee who gets assaulted or hotel patrons that are all mentally barraged by Charles’ unstable mind.

Patrick Stewart returns as Charles Xavier, showing incredible versatility with a role he’s been doing for as long as Jackman. Even though Jackman wears a constant beard and crinkled brow, we never lose the emotion in Logan’s position as the strong protector. He doesn’t just shrug off tragedy. He gets angry, and his paternal moments with Laura are all genuine. The film shines with sincerity when all three are together, especially Logan and Charles who both realistically oscillate between heavy weariness, annoyance and humour akin to old friends.

Unfortunately, an unavoidable problem with Logan is that any antagonist is going to unnecessarily draw attention away from our main cast, and the evil mercenary, Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the evil scientist, Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) and their “pet” mostly pose physical threats to a primarily emotional story. Plot wise, they also expose their mutant tracking prisoner, Caliban (Stephen Merchant), as a magical crystal ball that falls into their hands, whose only purpose is to prevent our heroes from easily succeeding, like the villain equivalent of the crocodile from Peter Pan.

Logan is a must see for anyone who may just have a passing interest in the X-Men film franchise, and a few references to previous movies, both new and old, will be appreciated by any fan. Even those who are totally unfamiliar and willing to endure the long runtime will be easily swept up in a generic, but nonetheless classic, story filled with heart. And blood. And guts. And a kid being harpooned in the leg.

Logan is available in Australian cinemas from March 2nd 

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Movie Review – The Great Wall

First we had Trump’s Mexican wall, now we have Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall – walls are getting a really bad wrap lately, huh?

⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

The plot of The Great Wall is so slight it can be summarised on the back of a napkin; essentially, Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal play two European mercenaries journeying east in search of ‘black powder’ when they stumble across the titular wall and thousands of brightly coloured soldiers lining its parapets. Drafted into the fighting force by Commander Mae (Tian Jing) when a horde of vicious monsters attacks, they must learn to work with and trust in the disciplined Chinese soldiers if they are to survive.

Presumably this simplicity was intentional to allow for the film to easily translate across both Western and Chinese audiences; unfortunately, it only serves to render the narrative inert, the dialogue flat and the characters one-dimensional.

The Great Wall peaks very early and never recoups after the opening salvo of action. The plot starts with nothing and goes nowhere, with none of the dull characters undergoing anything even closely resembling an arc. The second act in particular struggles as the film essentially starts with an eye-popping battle and doesn’t have the energy or material to sustain itself as it meanders through a sluggish pool of exposition.

Damon is woefully miscast and is given next to nothing to work with. He adopts a strange accent that at best can be described as Irish and at worst sounds like nothing else on this planet. Pascal plays his funny sidekick but is afforded a string of clichéd and forced one-liners you’ve heard a billion times before. The entire Chinese cast don’t fare much better; other than Jing, the rest of the Chinese army are cannon fodder for the generic green beasts to chow down on.

The only thing that works in The Great Wall’s favour is the costumes; the colourful, ornate suits of armour stand out against the drab backdrops and flat CGI. The primary colours may make them look a bit like Power Rangers but at least they’re intricate and layered, which is more than can be said for the story or the characters that inhabit them.

If history is your jam, your local library or bookstore will have plenty of interesting books about China you can read. If monsters are your thing, there are a wealth of more exciting monster movies out there worth your money. Hell, even if Matt Damon is your thing, there are reams of much better Matt Damon films you can watch where he gets the chance to inhabit a character rather than some broadly-sketched white saviour stereotype.

Ambitious but rubbish, Zhang’s The Great Wall unfortunately doesn’t live up to its name and will cause audiences to wish they had buried their noses in a stuffy history book instead.

The Great Wall is available in Australian cinemas from February 16

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017

Movie Review – XxX: Return of Xander Cage

Xander Cage is back in action – but should you care? The short answer is no; the long answer is hell no.

Rhys Graeme-Drury

Remember 2002’s xXx? Yeah, me neither. Apparently there was a sequel with Ice Cube too. Who knew? Well, turns out they went and made another one – only this time, Vin Diesel is back in the lead role as Tony Hawk meets James Bond wannabe Xander Cage.

I’m not going to bore you with the plot details – mainly because there aren’t any. You think I’m joking, but I’m really not. This movie has no plot. It has fragments of exposition that masquerade as plot – but nothing actually resembling a narrative, character development or emotional arcs. Who needs that when you can have lots of totally rad stunts, bro?

So this random MacGuffin called ‘Pandora’s Box’ is dangerous and dangerous people have stolen it. Apparently the only person with enough charisma and balls to stop them is this bloke Xander Cage, who was dead but now he isn’t (bored yet?). Except he can’t do it alone, he needs an entourage of equally braindead friends to tag along; you’ve got a sharpshooter (Ruby Rose), a guy who likes crashing cars (Rory McCann), a two-dimensional love interest (Deepika Padukone) and a DJ who is so awesome that he distract baddies with his sick DJ powers (Kris Wu). I’m not kidding, that’s all he does in the entire movie.

Return of Xander Cage is the kind of film where every female character immediately disrobes the instant Diesel walks into a room; it’s the kind of film where motorbikes seamlessly transform into jet skis and no-one bats an eye; it’s the kind of film where someone can leap from one skyscraper to another with nothing but forward momentum to break their fall and they totally survive.

In fact, that’s not entirely accurate. Return of Xander Cage isn’t a film at all; it’s a string of increasingly ludicrous action sequences conjoined by the thinnest plot imaginable. It’s what you would get if you gave a six-year-old boy lots of Red Bull, made him watch the X-Games and then asked him to write a story about spies, skateboards and martial arts. In crayon.

Diesel does his best but just comes across as an insufferable douchebag with a handful of marbles jammed in his mouth. Not once did I buy into the fact that this guy was an elite daredevil/stuntman/super spy.

The supporting cast are an equally tiresome conveyer belt of irritating characters competing for attention with increasingly cartoonish and over-the-top performances. Nina Dobrev plays a quirky IT girl called Becky (of course) who immediately fangirls over Diesel when they first meet, transforming into a blithering mess of babbling techno jargon and expectant doe-eyes that is enough to make you feel queasy. Toni Collette and Donnie Yen are wasted; cameos from Samuel L Jackson and Brazilian football superstar Neymar are throwaway gags.

Terrible on every conceivable level, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is destined to spend an eternity buried at the bottom of the bargain bin. Spend your time and money elsewhere.

XxX: Return of Xander Cage  is available in Australian cinemas from January 19

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Movie Review – Assassin’s Creed

This video game adaptation commits the twin crimes of being completely incomprehensible and toe-curlingly dull.

Charlie Lewis

A good action film is rather like a well-executed magic trick. There can be (and often are) plot holes and logical inconsistencies, but as long as the film carries us along briskly and keeps our attention directed where it wants, we’re happy not to ask too many questions. Then there are films like Assassin’s Creed, where the trick is so ineptly carried out that you aren’t even sure what was supposed to have happened.

Despite the torrent of bad press it’s received, I held out some small hope for Assassin’s Creed. Australian director Justin Kurzel greatly impressed me with his brutal, hyper-stylised take on Macbeth and he’s compiled a great cast (alongside the leads are the criminally underutilised Michael K Williams and Denis Menochet). Perhaps the critical response was snobbery about video game adaptations? Sadly, I can confirm snobbery has nothing to do with it. A collection of hugely talented people got together and made a simply terrible film.

So (now, bear with me) Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is a death row prisoner who is rescued from execution by a shadowy illuminati style organisation called the Abstergo Foundation. They are searching for the ‘Apple of Eden’ which was created by an ancient civilisation and contains the genetic code for free will. Sophia (Marion Cotillard), the chief scientist on this mission believes this may be the cure for violence, for some reason, but her sinister father (Jeremy Irons) wants it for more nefarious reasons. Using a machine called the animus, Lynch is plugged into the memories of his distant relative Aguilar, an assassin in 1492 Andalucía, and the last person to possess the apple. No, I don’t know how any of that works either.

Maybe the plot would make sense had I played more Assassin’s Creed, but Kurzel’s crime isn’t that I don’t ‘get’ the mythology. I could have finished every instalment of the game and it wouldn’t make the character’s motivations any more comprehensible, the portentous dialogue any less clunky, or the murky visuals any more compelling. In short, no level of investment in the world of AC could make me give a solitary damn about the events of this movie.

This might be forgivable, if the fights and chase sequences worked. However, Kurzel’s Andalucía is so wreathed in smoke and dust and the shooting style is so frenetic that they are borderline impossible to follow. During one fight a knife is thrown across a room into someone’s throat. I couldn’t tell who had thrown it, or if it was a henchman, a bystander or a ‘good’ guy who’d been killed. I swiftly concluded that I didn’t much care.

Assassin’s Creed is too grim and violent for kids, and too ragingly dumb for adults. And for a summer blockbuster based on a video game, it’s amazingly joyless in both content and execution. This may be Kurzel’s real crime: he forgot that magic tricks are supposed to be fun.

Assassin’s Creed is available in Australian cinemas from January 1st 

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Movie Review – Underworld: Blood Wars

Underworld: Blood Wars is a whole lot of the same old thing – for better and for worse.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Kate Beckinsale slips back into the skin-tight leather catsuit of vampire ‘death dealer’ Selene for another entry in the Underworld series. This time Selene and David (Theo James) are faced with a new threat in the form of Marius (Tobias Menzies), a fierce Lycan ringleader who seeks to unlock untold power through unconventional means.

Love them or hate them, at least the Underworld films know what they are. Every so many years, Screen Gems cobble together a modest budget for another 90 minutes of Beckinsale icily staring off into the distance, slinking through dark hallways in body-hugging leather and kicking dudes in the balls. Sometimes those dudes are vampires; most of the time they’re werewolves. There is a bit of lore sprinkled in to conjure up some semblance of a plot, but most of the time it’s just a driving force that propels Selene and her hunky co-stars towards the next chop-suey swordfight.

And so the formula continues with Blood Wars. Now in the fifth entry in the series, Blood Wars strives to further deepen the narrative without distancing itself too far from what fans know and love. Whilst 2012’s Underworld: Awakening stripped the premise back to its bare bones, Blood Wars pushes the fantasy elements farther than ever before. Incoming director Anna Foerster (TV’s Outlander) unleashes everything the meagre budget can muster and has a lot of fun mashing the modern day setting with heavy Game of Thrones inspired fantasy.

Towering keeps, royal bloodlines and conflict concerning ancient covens plants the series firmly in the realm of Thrones or Vikings fans, a trait that also extends to newly-introduced characters. Lara Pulver plays Semira, a cut-rate Cersei Lannister type who won’t wear a dress if the neckline can be described as anything other than plunging. Pulver delights in chewing the scenery and smirking wickedly from the shadows, wrapping her mouth around all manner of atrocious dialogue.

The Westeros influences continue with Clementine Nicholson’s white-haired warrior maiden Lena who is just one CGI dragon away from being a clone of Daenerys Targaryen. I’m not complaining too much, embracing the high fantasy elements once again fits the series well – but maybe those influences could’ve been less on the nose?

Decked out with more leather than an early 2000’s German nightclub, Underworld: Blood Wars is unlikely to garner the franchise fresh fans. It’s trashy, schlocky pulp that gets in and out in just over 91 minutes, screeching to an abrupt end in fear of overstaying its welcome. Beckinsale is sadly relegated to supporting at times, but Menzies makes for a delightfully malicious foe for her to face off against.

Underworld: Blood Wars is available in Australian cinemas from December 1st

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures