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

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

Begin Again

For F*** Magazine

BEGIN AGAIN

Director : John Carney
Cast : Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, James Corden, CeeLo Green, Catherine Keener
Genre : Drama, Romance
Opens : 3 July 2014
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language) 
Running time: 104 mins
Lovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, and that goes for the music men behind the scenes as well. In this musical romantic comedy, Mark Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, the down-and-out exec of music label Distressed Records, who has an estranged wife (Keener) and daughter (Steinfeld). While drowning his sorrows at a bar one night, British singer-songwriter Gretta (Knightley) catches his attention and he immediately sets about getting a hold of her so they can collaborate on a record. It turns out that Gretta’s long-time boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave Kohl (Levine) has strayed after letting stardom get to his head. Gretta tries to leave Dave behind as she, Dan, her best friend Steve (Corden) and a motley crew of session musicians embark on recording an album on the streets of New York, guerrilla-style.
            Begin Again, formerly titled Can a Song Save Your Life?, is written and directed by John Carney of Oncefame. The micro-budget Irish indie flick became a cult favourite after netting a Best Original Song Oscar for Falling Slowly and was adapted into an acclaimed musical running on Broadway and the West End. Begin Again can be seen as Carney “going Hollywood”, trading in a cheap video camera for a fancy Red Digital and having Hollywood names and pop stars in the cast. While Begin Again is certainly a glossier, slicker affair, it still retains a good measure of earnestness and sweetness and is sure to appeal to fans of music movies. In what might be somewhat meta commentary, the theme of “indie vs. big record label” crops up. There’s also a rather surprising bit of anti-product placement: Dan takes a sip of Pepsi and wonders aloud “God damn, how do people drink that?!”

            Many of the elements in Begin Again can be described as “formulaic” – there’s the maverick music producer who has been reduced to an unkempt mess but who gets a second wind upon discovering an ingénue, the disapproving ex-wife and the rebellious daughter and the ingénue’s unfaithful rock star boyfriend. An early scene has a frustrated Dan tossing demo CDs out of his car window, fed up with inane pop and in search of “real music”. However, the film does possess enough self-awareness such that it doesn’t drown in a morass of clichés and that there’s a still a soul to it. Carney also has a little fun with the structure of the first half of the film, starting in medias res before rewinding to the start of that day, telling the story from Dan’s point of view – and then rewinding further and telling it from Gretta’s. There’s also a wonderfully whimsical moment of visual invention, when upon first hearing Gretta sing, Dan begins to imagine possible arrangements for the song; the piano, drums, cello and violin sitting on stage suddenly playing by themselves in his imagination.

            Mark Ruffalo is pretty much scruffy-sexy incarnate. Once again, he looks like he badly needs a shower and a shave, but perhaps that is part of his charm. He convincingly essays a man who has fallen on hard times but who clearly once had drive and inspiration, and when that returns to him he comes alive again. Keira Knightley’s role was originally intended for Scarlett Johansson – while we don’t get the Hulk and Black Widow making sweet music together, Knightley is a perfectly acceptable substitute. Her singing voice is very pleasant and she consciously avoids turning Gretta into an idealised “manic pixie dream girl” type. When she says “I’m not Judy Garland off the greyhound bus looking for stardom”, this reviewer believes her – but wants to see her make it in the music biz all the same.

            When it comes to the casting of established singers like Adam Levine and his fellow The Voice coach CeeLo Green, it’s a Catch-22 situation: on one hand, having actual musicians in your music movie gives it credibility but on the other, it can be distracting enough to pull one out of the experience. Green’s appearance in the film is more tolerable because as hip-hop star and old pal of Dan’s nicknamed Troublegum, he could well be playing himself. However, Levine is not a brilliant actor and this reviewer happens to find his high-pitched whine of a singing voice somewhat grating. We’re also 90% sure that the name “Dave Kohl” is some kind of a dig at the similarly-named Foo Fighters frontman.


            Begin Again is a great date movie because it isn’t yet another a production line rom com and it never becomes unbearably cheesy and sappy. It won’t redefine the music flick genre, but it does have its share of sweet moments. The songs, co-written by New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander with Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley, Rick Nowels and Nick Southwood, Once star Glen Hansard and Carney himself, are all very listenable if not especially memorable or catchy. And this is quite possibly the first movie to make splitter cables seem like very romantic objects.
SUMMARY: Begin Again’s formulaic elements are offset by its measured sweetness and charm.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong