The Fate of The Furious (Fast and Furious 8) – Review

Just as the trouble finding a title that works across all markets is a problem for those that run The Fast and the Furious franchise, it has become hard to recall a standout identity on screen. The Europeans have been given the simplified version of adding a number eight to the title. Such a high rollout is usually the reserve of horror movies. Has director F. Gary Gray been able to avoid slashing up the moneymaking car-based property?

First off, let’s spare a thought for the man replacing James Wan. With each movie, it becomes harder to justify the fanfare (buckets of cash aside). Also, he is the first man to tackle a plot that has to exclude Brian’s role entirely following Paul Walker’s death.

The main problem is how the series hasn’t felt gripping since Michelle Rodriguez reappeared from death in a post-credits scene. It took ten minutes into the latest instalment, with her character Letty and Vin Diesel’s Dom enjoying a honeymoon in Havana, to realise these answers had already been fully explored and a full adventure had taken place in London since.

That’s the problem with “new” Fast and Furious films: they are great for the two hours you watch them, but are instantly forgettable.

This one starts with a street race reminiscent of simpler times, when it was good old street races, a bit of undercover work, and not big set-pieces. It can’t last in a modern version of a film bearing the name (in any guise) connected to this franchise. It is now Bond on Wheels, and we all remember what happened to that series when the stunts became too far-fetched…

Because they are brains-out movies, no spoilers or hints will be dropped here. It’ll remove the ten seconds of reveal you may be interested in. The main premise is how Dom goes rogue and is recruited by cyber terrorist Cipher, played by Charlize Theron.

He’s hunted by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Luke Hobbs, himself now an outlaw from his own government after the initial mission went tits-up when Dom went rogue. He’s aided by Dom’s own team, and Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw.

Yep, you read that right. Far from me to be a cynic, but the baddie gets a new backstory added where he was a decent captain in the SAS but his government sold him short – just like The Rock’s! Forget that he then became a ruthless murdering bad guy.

The thing is, there’s no need to care. Believability is suspended, so why not just enjoy the characters as they come? Also, it gives us Helen Mirren popping up as Shaw’s mum. In the process, we see a posh bird trying to sound like Peggy Mitchell from EastEnders.

A special mention should go to Kurt Russell. This was a screen-stealing edition of Mr Nobody and when you compare his turn in Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and this, you appreciate just how diverse his range is.

The same cannot be said of Nathalie Emmanuel as Ramsey. The Brit needs to drop the overaccentuated well-spoken words and be more natural in the role. With a screen awash with warm characters, she is the odd one out. The static, cold, sterile (pretty) face.

The plot has been criticised for being bloated, long, and dull. That’s a major knife in the back, it’s actually okay. The cliched parts aside, and the massive suspension of disbelief required (and that’s a great thing, otherwise we’d be robbed of Shaw’s comedic shoot-out toward the film’s end), it does reach the scope it aims for.

Okay, it is best served as a hangover film when you need a quiet Sunday afternoon, perhaps not what the studio want to hear, but with two sequels planned, their cash cow has some milk left in it.

There’s rumours Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel clashed during this movie’s production. From a marketing point-of-view, that is ironic because moving forward the franchise Vin started might have to become The Rock centric in order to survive.


Ghost in the Shell (2017) – Review

The fuss of casting a white actress in the lead role of Ghost in the Shell can at last take a (temporary) backseat. It helps that the actor in question is Scarlett Johansson, she has the screen presence to divert attention to what is important. As always, that should be the plot.

Playing the role of the Major, a rank we see her attain here after a short opening sequence that reveals her “creation” and/or alteration. She is Mira Killian, her brain is planted into a perfect engineered cybernetic body made by Hanka Robotics. The CEO there, Cutter, sees her as a weapon and wants her up and running as soon as possible.

The designer, Juliette Binoche’s Dr Ouelet (because white people make, as well as look, like the best of Asia in this future world), sees Major as a living person. Most definitely not an object. And therein begins our moral tale of consciousness and what constitutes life. However, unlike the animated original, these themes – along with the entire movie – have been made more accessible for a mainstream audience.

It means the deeper philosophical questions have been dumbed down and the action sequences, instead pioneering like its forbearer, become generic and lifeless. They do pay homage to scenes from the original, at times it’s as if moments have been lifted from there. And the authenticity of the environment is solid throughout.

It falls down when it comes to adding suspense and the journey Major undertakes to reveal her true identity (it isn’t Killian). It’s noble they tried to add the backstory in what they must be hoping is a franchise, but everything is far too obvious.

Whether it be Hanko turning on Major, to the main plot of seemingly malevolent AI that is looking to bring down Hanko. This third-party intelligence is at odds with Major’s views of the world, leading to Hanko losing faith, despite Dr Ouelet’s protests.

It seems tech companies like to be run by bad guys once they’re making revolutionary strides forward. Hanko is like RoboCop’s OCP. A company in deep with the government and run lawlessly from within.

Visually, it can be stunning at times. A body suit clad Johansson is always going to be easy on the eye, and as mentioned, the set pieces breathe life into the world they are trying to replicate from the original. Perhaps the finale goes too big on the Hollywood action, and the setting feels at odds with all that came before it.

But as something to look at, whether it be Major, Hideo (we see why he needs the goggles), the city, or most of the fight scenes, it deserves the title: Ghost in the Shell.

It even tries to carry the heart of the original and gets a free pass, this time, because of the leading lady.

Sadly, it just lacks that something special beyond the performance of Johansson to make it noteworthy. The 1995 version was ground-breaking in many ways, this is the exact opposite. It plays it safe, using standard techniques and methods we’ve seen a million times before in countless forgettable movies.

Hopefully there is enough of an interest to allow Section 9 another chance but without Rupert Sanders in the director’s chair.


Ghost in the Shell (1995) – Review

With the new Hollywood remake out in cinemas, it was inevitable the Manga original was going to get a revisit. Or for some, a first viewing. The new Ghost in the Shell is best-known – for the time being, at least – for being responsible for reigniting the whitewashing in American movies. The original was the attempt to penetrate the western mainstream. It failed. But was it fairly overlooked?

It’s interesting when you ask people about Manga. Some will mention Akira before tailing off. Many recognise the niche films as a mark of honour. A nineties cult that defined a new type of geek-cool. For our in-house WWE expert, Clive Balls, who spent time living in Japan, they are more than quirky, in many ways they already trump Hollywood.

To the man in the middle (me), they are somewhere in between. Atmospheric animation that delves into thought provoking issues. They’re certainly not cartoons. They are the Japanese graphic novel without the awkward ties to forties comics.

Ghost in the Shell was a film ahead of its time. It took on artificial intelligence long before the current Westworld revival. It deals with gender and strips away all preconceptions long before the world at large listened to LGBT rights. The makers envisioned large networks and interconnectivity while we were all accessing the internet with dial-up.

The story centres on Major (she’s the Scarlett Johannson character). An outwardly looking female but her nakedness that reveals the dream body is purely to activate camouflage. The strength she displays and all her drives are asexual. She is something else in a world where cyborgs are commonplace, each believing they possess a soul – the ghost in the shell.

A complex argument of what defines consciousness, the individual traits that are left behind, creating the person.

As revelations unravel, Major worries that her ghost could just be clever programming. This comes about when her unit, a government agency, realises a hacker is at work, it appears the corporation that makes government cyborgs has been infiltrated.

The Puppet Master, is the name the hacker goes by, and it sets Major up for a showdown. With it, a deep insight into her own existence.

To go into further detail will unravel the apex of the story. The main takeaway from Ghost in the Shell after all these years is that the mood and feel stands up to anything that has come since. Some hallmarks have been outright robbed in major Hollywood films. The way characters move during action scenes is now the way CGI enhanced stuntmen do combat.

The soundtrack could be where Manga borrowed ideas from western sci-fi, even when using traditional Japanese songs, in terms of tension building. But the pacing is a let-down. The philosophical statements are unlikely to be surpassed in the 2017 live action remake but the flow of the film has room for improvement.

To answer the question in the opening paragraph: Yes, originally it was overlooked when it should have been embraced rather than copied. But time has aged some of its parts and degraded the once four-star film.


A Most Violent Year – Review

Sometimes all the ingredients come along to make a modern day classic. We have Jessica Chastain, a strong showing from Oscar Isaac, JC Chandor pulling writing and directing duties, a moody 80s New York setting. Add to that an extensive out-pouring of positive critical reviews and nothing can go wrong, right? Wrong. All is not what it seems.

The premise is Isaac and Chastain play Abel and Anna Morales. Man and wife own and do the books for the Standing Heating Oil Company. While she’s juggling ever decreasing numbers on incomes sheets, he faces ever increasing odds to keep the company alive.

He wants to play it straight but his moral code is tested when his vehicles, containing the oil, are repeatedly stolen. With the loot missing, his financial situation is stretched. This becomes a vicious circle when he opts to purchase an oil terminal from a Jewish group but struggles to generate the required capital.

To make matters worse for Abel, David Oyelowo enters the fray as Lawrence who makes it clear he is investigating all his business deals. This prompts Anna to hide the books, even though they protest to playing it clean, and Abel feels the strain from all sides.

What follows is Abel facing attempted hits, one of his beaten drivers taking part in a shootout, and a race against time to keep his creditors at bay and get the cash for the terminal. The driver that secretly carried a firearm was Julian. The news of the impending criminal trial means the bank pull funding for the proposed oil terminal purchase.

Just what Abel needed. It also forms a subplot where Abel tries to find an on-the-run Julian so he can hand him over as a peace offering to Lawrence. Apparently, you’re not a tax evader if you give up gunmen.

It moves along with a steady pace but at times, not helped by the stylization, it feels more like a 70s TV detective movie than a well-produced blockbuster. The odd chase scene doesn’t levitate the film from its constant slumber. What we are left with is the hope Abel gets his money and identifies the thieves just to progress the story.

jessica-chastain-amvyMany people that have been wax lyrical over this have been seduced by the styling – and dare I say it? – believing that applauding this movie is some sort of reference point for being in the know. It’s a certain level of snobbishness that makes a person say this is a good film based on a below average script (it’s riddled with plot holes right up until the last scene), nostalgic cinematography, and a good performance from Jessica Chastain (when does she ever give a bad one?).

1981 may have been the most violent year on record in New York, this film however doesn’t reflect this. Everyone is in too much of a slumber to bother engaging in the violence we have to assume was happening all around them. It should be renamed: A Most Mundane Affair.


Legend (2015) – Review

Everyone loves a gangster flick. The Americans have a plethora to choose from. It’s debatable if Goodfellas bests The Godfather, or maybe Scarface is more your thing. British efforts are a bit more wide boy and in your face. So what happens if you take a real life British gangster crime story and turn it into a movie?

If you choose to dabble with the most famous of all British gangsters you are dealing with the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie. The film you’ll end you with is The Krays from 1990. Hold yer horses, guv. What if we want to make the Krays fit into an Americanised biopic? Ah, should have said. Then you’ll end up 2015’s Legend.

Director Brian Helgeland is better known for his writing credits (L.A. Confidential) but did direct Payback (you may have missed that corker). He has taken the history of the most notorious London criminals and decided the truth shouldn’t get in the way of a good story. Unfortunately, the story of The Krays is good enough. Instead, his fictionalised version of events lacks direction and purpose.

Key moments, like the murders that eventually convicted the twins, are shoehorned into a story narrated by Emily Browning’s Frances Shea. Yeah, that’s right folks, the story is told from the perspective of a ghost whose real life interactions vary depending on which person’s account you believe.

It’s a shame to degrade her input when Browning’s performance is so strong. That is a running theme of the film, cracking performances hidden in a below average flick.

Christopher Eccleston, as always, proves what a versatile actor he is. His hunting as Scotland Yard’s Nipper Read deserved more screen time.

The true star of the show is Tom Hardy. So powerful and diverse are his turns as both twins, it has you believing two separate actors are playing the roles. His appearance here further underlines his place as one of the best performers of this generation.

If only the script could have given Hardy the platform he richly deserved. Instead the movie labours through cockney narration plastered onto a disingenuous wannabe Hollywood background. The result is something that could easily drift to TV movie, if not for the star power on display.

The story only charts the peak years of The Krays’ rule, from cutting deals with Las Vegas bosses to ruling London without opposition. Their downfall was portrayed as an inward problem rather than being taken bested.

Sadly, that sums up the film. It should have been the peak of the boys on camera, an all-star cast and decent budget. Instead it moves them into mediocrity. Often gangster films are criticised for glamorising the lifestyle. No such problem here. It looked pretty mundane through the eyes of Brian Helgeland.

Worth watching to enjoy Tom Hardy, but have a crossword puzzle or a Sudoku on the go for (the many) sections where the film stutters along.