Bumblebee review

BUMBLEBEE

Director : Travis Knight
Cast : Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Peter Cullen, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 20 December 2018
Rating : PG13

Bumblebee-poster          The last Transformers movie gave us King Arthur, Transformers fighting Nazis, a secret order entrusted with guarding the Transformers’ history on earth, and Sir Anthony Hopkins. In addition to the usual hyperactive clanging action sequences, there was so much plot it was wont to make one’s head spin. This prequel/spinoff dials things back a notch, leaning heavily on nostalgia and steering the franchise away from the cacophony which has characterised it.

Bumblebee is the story of a girl and her car. The girl: Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a sullen teenager coping with the death of her father. Charlie’s mother Sally (Pamela Adlon) has remarried, and while Charlie’s brother Otis (Jason Drucker) has taken to their stepfather Ron (Stephen Schneider) well, Charlie has not warmed to him. The car: a Volkswagen Beetle whom Charlie christens Bumblebee, who is secretly an Autobot from the planet Cybertron in disguise. The Autobots are locked in a vicious war with the Decepticons, and Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) has sent Bumblebee to earth, to scope out the planet as a possible refuge for the Autobots.

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The Decepticons Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) track Bumblebee down to earth, and trick government agents Jack Burns (John Cena) and Dr Powell (John Ortiz) into assisting them in hunting Bumblebee. Charlie and Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), the neighbour who has a crush on her, find themselves caught in a high-stakes clash between the secretive agency Sector 7 and the Transformers. The bond between Charlie and Bumblebee undergoes a trial by fire, with the Autobot facing serious jeopardy from the humans and Decepticons alike.

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The live-action Transformers movies, with a possible exception of the first one in 2007, have been varying degrees of bad. Most of the blame has been placed on Michael Bay, who has shown contempt for the source material and its fans. Bumblebee shows the potential of the franchise when it’s placed in the hands of someone who cares about the source material, with Travis Knight taking the reins. Knight is the president of stop-motion animation studio Laika, having directed Kubo and the Two Strings.

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Bumblebee is still very much a studio product, taking full advantage of its 1987 setting to bombard audiences with nostalgia. There’s a prominently-placed can of Tab, lots of 80s music including “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and “Never Gonna Give You Up”, Bumblebee watching The Breakfast Club on VHS, a reference to Heathers, and the designs of the Transformers are heavily inspired by their G1 incarnations. While these touches can come off as pandering, Bumblebee cuts through it with an emotional through-line, placing an emphasis on ‘heart-ware’ over hardware.

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Putting an animation director in charge means that there is more attention to movement and geometry, and the action sequences are much easier to follow than those in preceding Transformers movies. The scope of the film is more intimate, set mostly in a seaside Northern California town, a welcome respite from the often-meaningless globe-trotting that was a hallmark of the earlier live-action movies.

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Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie is a character we’ve many times before and seems to intentionally hark back to 80s coming-of-age movies. She’s withdrawn, yearning to make an emotional connection after suffering a personal loss, must fend off preening bullies, and possesses a special skill which you can bet will come in handy later in the movie. However, Steinfeld imbues Charlie with enough liveliness and personality to make her seem more than a bundle of familiar tropes. She sells the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee, even if a good portion of the movie is Charlie yelling as something horrible happens to Bumblebee.

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The character animation on Bumblebee is very endearing. As a VW Beetle, he comes off as rounder and softer than as a Camaro. Bay’s rejection of Bumblebee’s original form as a Beetle was indicative of his approach – to him, a Beetle just didn’t look cool or badass, but Bumblebee doesn’t need to look cool and badass – he needs to look friendly and approachable. This Bumblebee is also a competent warrior, but the best bits of the film are when he’s a fish out of water, learning to acclimate to life on earth and building his friendship with Charlie. It seems like elements of his back-story from the earlier films, including that he fought in World War II alongside the allies, have been jettisoned.

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John Cena plays the stock ‘Inspector Javert’ type – not necessarily a bad guy, but it’s his job to hunt down the good guys, so he performs the role of an antagonist. Cena shines in the few moments when the character can be funny; it’s clear that comedy is his true calling. John Ortiz’s excitable scientist character Powell is the closest this movie gets to the cringe-inducing comedy stylings of Michael Bay, but the character only makes a brief appearance.

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Charlie’s mum, stepdad and brother are very much an 80s sitcom family, and that works within the framework of the film. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. is the shy love interest, but the film takes its time in developing the relationship between Memo and Charlie.

Bumblebee-Dropkick-Shatter            It’s always a delight to hear Peter Cullen’s sonorous, commanding tones as Optimus Prime, and Angela Bassett makes for a suitably formidable villain as the voice of Shatter.

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Bumblebee doesn’t put an especially original spin on the time-tested “a kid and their X” formula, but this feels much, much closer to what a live-action Transformers movie should be. Viewed on its own, it’s good, but in comparison to the earlier Michael Bay-directed films, it’s great.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Aquaman review

AQUAMAN

Director : James Wan
Cast : Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison, Randall Park, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Beach
Genre : Comics/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 143 mins
Opens : 13 December 2018
Rating : PG13

The DC Extended Universe goes full fathom five and beyond then some with Aquaman, telling the story of the man who would be king of Atlantis.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is a child of two worlds: his mother is Atlantean Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), and his father is human lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). Taking on the superhero mantle of Aquaman, Arthur was instrumental in defeating Steppenwolf during the events of Justice League. Now, Princess Mera (Amber Heard) of the Xebel Kingdom has come calling, bringing news that Arthur’s Atlantean half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is threatening war against the surface world.

While Arthur is initially reluctant to travel to Atlantis, circumstances force him to follow Mera to the undersea kingdom. There, he confronts Orm, challenging him for the throne. Arthur is sent by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), the Atlantean vizier who has secretly trained Arthur to eventually take on Orm, on a quest to recover the Trident of King Atlan (Graham McTavish), the legendary first ruler of Atlantis. In addition to Orm, treacherous pirate David Kane/Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) stands in Arthur’s way, employing cutting-edge weaponry against Arthur. Arthur must prove himself the one true king of Atlantis, embarking on an extraordinary adventure.

Let’s talk about the concept of “silliness”. Movies based on comic books sometimes exhibit a fear of coming off as silly. After all, the worst comic book movies, films like Batman and Robin and Catwoman, are often decried as silly. As a result, some comic book movies overcompensate, becoming dour and self-serious in the process. Aquaman is silly, but through sheer willpower, the movie transcends silliness and achieves awesomeness. It’s a superhuman feat, but with director James Wan steering the ship, Aquaman accomplishes this.

This is a rip-roaring, old-fashioned adventure, filled with spectacular visual effects, fluidly-choreographed fight sequences and awe-inspiring locales. The movie draws heavily on myth, and is about a man named Arthur who, in reaching his destiny as king, overcomes insurmountable odds and faces a series of tests. By its nature, there are similarities to Thor and Black Panther, but Aquaman complements its familiar story beats with sheer visual imagination.

From the get-go, this was going to be a mind-boggling logistical challenge. How does one make a movie that takes place largely underwater, and have actors float about delivering dialogue without it looking – there’s that word again – silly? Aquaman works overtime to earn audience’s suspension of disbelief, and from the production design by Bill Brzeski to the visual effects furnished by pretty much every major VFX vendor, there’s a lot to take in. The movie acknowledges that there still might be some audiences who will be unconvinced and greet certain scenes with laughter, so it’s a good thing that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a giant octopus that plays the drums. There’s just the right sprinkle of self-awareness that complements the grandiosity and scale of the adventure. While on the surface, the film doesn’t quite have the emotional gravity of some other comic movies, its world-building and characters inspire investment.

While some viewers might complain about the extent of CGI used, Aquaman somehow avoids the feeling that its set-pieces have been vomited onscreen by a render farm. The design of many of the creatures is very Ray Harryhausen-esque, and even in the most synthetic sequences, Wan retains a sense of tactility and is an expert at drawing the eye.

Jason Momoa delivers a stellar turn, expanding upon the glimpses into Arthur’s character we saw in Justice League. This is a hero who can be a bit of a boorish lout, but for all his life, he’s been fighting an identity crisis, feeling like he belongs neither to the sea or the land. It’s something that children of mixed heritage can readily relate to – everyone’s calling him “half-breed” or epithets of the like, but this perceived weakness is what sets Arthur apart. The character has moments when he’s child-like and joyous, moments when he’s a mighty hero, and moments when he’s a bit of an idiot, and it comes together to form a compelling lead character.

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While Amber Heard has the tendency to come off as stiff in some films, but as Mera, she is a lively presence. Not letting a patently obvious wig stand in her way, Heard’s defiant princess character is integral to the story. There a is a bit of a Romancing the Stone-esque vibe to the bickering romance set against an adventure movie backdrop, but the relationship develops satisfyingly. When the pair gets to stop and smell the roses in Sicily, it’s cheesy as all get-out, but also a delight.

This reviewer was afraid that two major villains would clutter the movie, but Aquaman allocates the villainy appropriately. Orm is by nature a generic tyrant king character, but Patrick Wilson has as much fun as he can with the role.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes for an intense Black Manta – the character was what this reviewer was most looking forward to in this movie, and Abdul-Mateen’s portrayal doesn’t disappoint.

The romance between Atlanna and Tom Curry is cheesy, but like everything else in this movie that’s cheesy, it works. The forbidden romance is given a mythic, poetic quality, with Kidman and Morrison being the ideal casting for the characters. Lundgren and Dafoe both put in satisfying supporting turns. Dolph Lundgren sporting a red beard astride a seahorse monster is not something that should work, but it does. There’s also a vocal cameo from a distinguished English actress, as a Lovecraftian mega-monster.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave this film a negative review. The comments section for that review are filled with commenters immensely pleased with themselves that they dislike comic book movies and are therefore so very grown up. A fear of appearing childish is, in its own way, a childish thing. Aquaman’s embrace of the inherent silliness in its source material and its irrepressible sense of wonderment and adventure propel it into becoming perhaps the best comic book movie of the year, and one of this reviewer’s favourite films he’s seen all year.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse review

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Director : Bob Persichetti, Pete Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Cast : Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Jake Johnson, Liev Schreiber, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Zoë Kravitz
Genre : Animation/Comics
Run Time : 117 mins
Opens : 13 December 2018
Rating : PG

You know Peter Parker, your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. In this animated film, various Spider-people are putting the “tangle” in “quantum entanglement”, in a story that’s just a little different from the Spider-Man story you’re likely familiar with.

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a teenager who’s the son of police officer Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and nurse Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), is your regular Brooklyn teenager. He is enrolled into a snooty private school and feels like only his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who encourages Miles’ artistic pursuits, really understands him. One night, while painting graffiti in an abandoned railway station, Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, gaining super-strength, the ability to stick to surfaces by his hands and feet, the ability to emanate an electric shock and turn invisible, amongst various powers.

Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who owns the megacorporation Alchemax, is constructing a particle collider under the building. The collider opens a portal to other dimensions, leading to the Spider-themed heroes of various realms tumbling into Miles’ world. Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) is washed-up and reluctantly teaches Miles how to be Spider-Man. Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) became Spider-Woman and was unable to save the Peter Parker of her universe from death. Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) is a schoolgirl who pilots a mech called SP//DR. Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage) is a hard-boiled private eye from a stylised 1930s, and Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) is a cartoon animal parody of Spider-Man. Together, these heroes from disparate realities must defeat Kingpin and other villains to find a way back to their respective dimensions, as Miles comes to grips with his newfound powers and the attendant responsibilities.

The filmmakers of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are painfully aware that practically everyone knows the Spider-Man story, and this animated film is ambitious in that it’s a Spider-Man movie that’s partially about how there are so many Spider-Man movies. On a certain level, it’s philosophical, musing on the universal hero’s journey that echoes through all of fiction, presenting it in wild and woolly permutations. As an animated film, it’s naturally toyetic and is targeted mainly at a kid audience, but it’s also packed with meta jokes (likely influenced by the success of the Deadpool movies) and is not only self-aware but exhibits great medium awareness. This movie does a bunch of things that wouldn’t be possible in a live-action film, and it is interesting to see how that is handled.

However, what makes Into the Spider-Verse stand out from the typical Spider-Man movie also makes it a bit of a mess. The look of the film is a great place to start: the animation is dynamic and eye-catching, employing comic book panels, thought bubbles, onomatopoeia and Ben-Day dots, amongst other devices, to mimic the feel of a comic book. The style deliberately evokes the artwork of Ultimate Spider-Man co-creator Sara Pichelli, and the film is often wondrous to look at. However, there is so much chromatic aberration and the animation is deliberately jerky in a way that tries to blend 3D and 2D animation, so the visual flourishes can wind up being excessive and distracting.

The same is true of the story. We start with a basic Spider-Man template and focusing the story on the Miles Morales incarnation of Spidey does make things inherently different. The film wants its emotional anchor to be the relationship between Miles and his father, but the story gets so cluttered with its multiple Spider-people and villains that one can sometimes lose track of that thread.

Tonally, Into the Spider-Verse seems a little confused. There are plenty of jokes and a lot of the humour is self-referential, but in aiming for dramatic stakes, some scenes and plot points are shockingly dark. A character even gets punched to death onscreen. Some moments are effectively emotional, but others feel out of place.

The voice cast is excellent across the board. Shameik Moore’s Miles is excited but also confused and wracked with self-doubt, and the character is created to be relatable to a large audience, something Moore leans into in his performance.

Hailee Steinfeld captures Gwen’s confidence and charm, but also the quality of being haunted by a personal failure that follows most Spider-people. Jake Johnson brings a certain schlubby quality to his Spider-Man, but another thing that might lose some kids in the audience is that a main character in this movie is a divorced, out-of-shape Spider-Man facing a mid-life crisis.

Brian Tyree Henry brings both humour and authority to his portrayal of Jefferson, while Mahershala Ali’s laid-back coolness and the suggestion that there’s more going on with Miles ‘cool uncle’ than we know flesh the Aaron Davis character out satisfyingly.

Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir is one of the film’s highlights – and in the same year that he voiced Superman in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, as well. John Mulaney and Kimiko Glenn likewise play up how their characters homage classic Looney Tunes cartoons and schoolgirl/mech anime respectively.

Liev Schreiber’s Kingpin is at times almost as frightening as Vincent D’Onofrio’s in the Daredevil series, but the character’s especially exaggerated proportions can undercut his menace as a villain.

Lily Tomlin’s Aunt May, functioning kind of like Alfred with a Batcave-like secret headquarters that she oversees, is a delight.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is boldly experimental and hits more than it misses with its self-reflexive jokes. However, the film winds up feeling significantly longer than its 117 minutes, with a lot of plot to get to, in addition to feeling a little self-conscious about its out-there visual stylings. Stick around for a scene after the end credits.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Widows review

WIDOWS

Director : Steve McQueen
Cast : Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garrett Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Lukas Haas, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Coburn Goss
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 129 mins
Opens : 6 December 2018
Rating : M18

This summer movie season brought us the glittery fun of Ocean’s Eight, but now it’s time for a much more serious take on the female-led heist movie concept in the form of Widows.

Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is a thief who has never put a foot wrong, until one fateful night when he and his crew comprising Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss) are killed during a botched job. Harry and his team were stealing $2 million from crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is running for alderman of the 18th precinct of Chicago. Jamal’s opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who hails from a political dynasty including his father, former alderman Tom (Robert Duvall), with whom he has a contentious relationship.

Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) is threatened by Jamal and his enforcer brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), who want Harry’s debt to them repaid. Veronica decides to undertake Harry’s next job, for which he kept detailed plans in his notebook. Veronica ropes in Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), leaving the fourth widow Amanda (Carrie Coon) out of the plan because she has a new-born child. Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairstylist and part-time babysitter hired by Linda, steps in. Together, the four women must pull off a high-stakes heist that finds them embroiled in a dicey conspiracy involving the city’s powerful politicians and mobsters.

Widows is based on the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name, and marks Steve McQueen’s first film as director since 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. McQueen co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. Widows has plenty of pedigree in front of and behind the camera and is a bit of an odd beast because at first glance, it sounds like the kind of plot one might find in a direct-to-DVD action movie. One could imagine a much cheaper, more sloppily-made version of Widows being something to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

For better and worse, Widows is not that movie. The story is layered with political commentary and does have the sometimes-odd feel of a crime thriller imbued with prestige movie filmmaking. There is a meticulousness to the world-building and how each character’s specific circumstances are established, but this is also a movie that seems to want to tell a story beyond the confines of the genre. That’s not to say that an action thriller can’t be deep or tackle topical issues, but Widows’ approach sometimes calls attention to itself, pulling the viewer out of what could’ve been an intensely engaging story. It’s not the most obvious comparison, but this reviewer was reminded of Ben Affleck’s The Town, also a crime thriller in which the protagonists are thieves, and also a movie about the desperation brought on by socioeconomic inequality in American cities.

The performances are strong across the board, with Viola Davis showcasing the strength and no-nonsense demeanour seen in many of her characters. We see Veronica in her vulnerable moments, but we also witness the full effect of her steely resolve. She is not out to befriend her co-conspirators and is business-like and harsh in her interactions with the other widows, who all need comfort and a listening ear to varying degrees.

Debicki is the standout among the rest of the cast, portraying a character who comes off as just a dumb blonde at first, but who is to be underestimated at one’s peril. A subplot involves Alice’s reluctant ‘sugar daddy’ arrangement with real estate developer David (Lukas Haas). There’s a lot more going on with the character than one realises at first, which gives Debicki quite a bit to play with.

Erivo is an entertaining badass and Rodriguez gets to play a few more notes than the typical ‘tough chick’ she gets typecast as. Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry play warring politicians, both crooked in their own ways. When the film wades into political thriller territory, it loses a bit of the intimacy and urgency that it has when we’re with the widows themselves.

Kaluuya is a brilliant actor, but cast against type as a heavy, he can’t quite muster up what it takes to be truly intimidating. The always-dependable Neeson is used judiciously, making the most of his limited screen time.

Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell make for an entertaining double act as father-and-son politicians at each other’s throats, but their subplots mostly feel like a distraction from the main plot.

There’s also the most adorable dog, a West Highland Terrier named Olivia whom moviegoers might recognise from Game Night. Olivia is up against Academy Award winners and nominees, but handily steals the show.

The violence depicted in the film has impact, and there are many moments that jolt the viewer out of sitting too comfortably in their cinema seat. There are smatterings of comedy which give the audience a reprieve from the overall seriousness of the film, but some of these moments are a little awkward. There is a strategy to how information and back-story details are parcelled out to the audience, and there is merit in McQueen’s approach of a crime movie that offers more than just mindless action. However, the film’s centre often threatens to buckle, and Widows adds up to slightly less than the sum of its parts.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong