Movie Review ~ Bumblebee

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The Facts
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Synopsis: On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns this is no ordinary, yellow VW bug.

Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Adlon, Kenneth Choi, John Ortiz, Angela Bassett,

Director: Travis Knight

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: By the time director Michael Bay spewed forth Transformers: Age of Extinction in 2014 I wasn’t even paying attention anymore.  At that point the series had long since blended together into one long headache of an action sequence, barely indistinguishable from one movie to the next.  I do remember, however, falling asleep during Transformers: The Last Knight in 2017 for an extended period of time and waking up having no clue where I was or what was happening…occupational hazard.  After five (FIVE!) increasingly bombastic films that made a lot of money but never received great reviews, this spin-off was announced and I’d honestly been dreading it ever since.  Though Bay (Pain & Gain) wouldn’t be in the director’s chair he’d still be producing the prequel and I just figured it would be more of the same sturm und drang nonsense.

Turns out, a fresh perspective is just what the doctor ordered to zap some heart and soul into an emotionally defunct franchise. The lovably retro Bumblebee is not just a solidly pleasing action film that succeeds on its stand-alone own merits but it’s the best Transformers movie released to date.  By relegating Bay and his tendency to overstuff to the sidelines, there’s more air for everyone else to breathe and the result is a thrill ride that knows when to lay off the gas and when to floor it.

While escaping from the evil Decepticons that have overtaken the planet Cybertron, young Autobot B-127 is sent by his leader Optimus Prime to Earth to get things ready for the other Autobots to follow.  B-127 crash lands in 1987 southern California, right in the middle of a routine training operation led by Jack Burns (John Cena, Sisters) who heads a secret government organization.  Quickly targeted by Burns and his crew as a threat to Earth’s safety, he escapes but is severely wounded in the process.  Using the last of his dwindling power supply, B-127 transforms into the last thing he sees…a yellow Volkswagen beetle.

This opening sequence is fairly breathless in pace and it’s at this point that director Travis Knight (ParaNorman) allows the audience a chance to take it easy while he introduces us to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), a typical teen working a summer job at a local amusement park.  Her mom (Pamela Adlon, Grease 2) doesn’t understand her, the boy she maybe likes doesn’t know she’s alive, and all the time not spent at work is dedicated to finishing up repairing a car she was working on with her late father.  Exploring the local junk yard she comes across a few of the parts she needs as well as a strange yellow Volkswagen beetle that seems to be a perfect fit for her.  When the bug becomes hers and its secrets revealed, it will put Charlie and her family in danger as B-127 (renamed Bumblebee) unknowingly sends out a signal that attracts the attention of two evil Decepticons that have been hot on his trail.

Screenwriter Christina Hodson doesn’t set out to reinvent the wheel with the film, it’s still very much in the Transformers universe and to me all the talk about Decepticons, Autobots, Optimus Prime, and a host of other robot adjacent vernacular went in one ear and out the other.  It was the personal moments between the tech talk that struck me as something more interesting, more special than anything previously seen in these movies.  More time is spent on character development without ever skimping on action or flawless CGI, proving that you can have your AllSpark cake and savor eating it too.

The weakest parts are actually anytime it starts to take itself too seriously, namely whenever Cena’s wooden Burns is leading the charge to take Bumblebee down.  Unwittingly helping the two rogue Decepticons Shatter (given a sinewy evil voice by Angela Bassett, Black Panther) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux, Wanderlust), Burns is one of those middling villains that’s neither good nor bad but serves his purpose to bring the two main foes together and then just sort of fades into the background.  It doesn’t help that Cena’s early promise of charm as an actor is fading fast, showing that he’s more Andre the Giant than The Rock.

Helping the film immeasurably is Steinfeld as our leading lady.  As she’s done in nearly everything she’s been involved with, Steinfeld elevates the material to another level and imbibes the character with a little something extra that makes her relatable to almost any audience member.  You didn’t have to be an angsty teenage girl growing up without a dad in the ‘80s to root for her character completely.  I also appreciated that while a potential love interest (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Love Simon) was introduced and could definitely have been explored further, Hodson decided that wasn’t the focus of the story being told here and saved that for another time and place.

Thankfully, there aren’t endless winks and nods to the other sequels, allowing Bumblebee to very much stand on its own. Most of these types of prequels feel like they only exist to capitalize on the name recognition of an already established popular franchise and there’s little doubt that’s what Bumblebee is counting on to at least get people in the door.  It’s when those audience members get a look at the clever way the filmmakers have drawn a line between this film and the Transformers movies that have already come before that they’ll really be impressed.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Kong: Skull Island

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Synopsis: A diverse team of explorers is brought together to venture deep into an uncharted island in the Pacific—as beautiful as it is treacherous—unaware that they’re crossing into the domain of the mythic Kong.

Release Date: March 10, 2017

Thoughts: Since 1933, we’ve been kinda ape over King Kong. Though his franchise isn’t a huge one, each time he’s appeared on screen it’s been a cultural touchstone of the moviemaking era.  The original film became instantly iconic while the overstuffed 1976 remake boasted impressive effects and a newcomer by the name of Jessica Lange.  Peter Jackson’s thrill heavy 2005 reboot didn’t kick things off like it should have but it kept the larger than life monkey in relevant terms.  With the success of 2014’s Godzilla and expertly timed with Universal Studios in Orlando’s new King Kong ride, Kong: Skull Island feels like it’s arriving at the right time.  Starring Brie Larson (The Gambler), Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), Tom Hiddleston (Thor: The Dark World), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), and John C. Reilly (Guardians of the Galaxy), the new’70s set Kong is clearly going for that old school home territory feeling without the bright lights of the big city to muck it all up.  This first full trailer is a tad jokey for my tastes but the kid in me is counting down the days until Kong is again unleashed.

Movie Review ~ The Finest Hours

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.

Stars: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Eric Bana

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Walt Disney Studios used to crank out their live-action pictures with regularity, keeping the home fires burning while readying their latest animated release.  From shaggy dogs to absent-minded professors to a king of the wild frontier, from identical twins pulling a fast one on their divorced parents to a monkey’s uncle to babes in toyland, the studio cast a wide net of fantasy and more often than not put forth winning family entertainment that weren’t Oscar caliber but have managed to stand the test of time all the same.

In recent years, there’s been a revitalization of Disney focusing on live-action features. Favoring true stories of uphill battles instead of the more fantastical escapism that maybe was more necessary half a century ago, there’s a definite formula at work here and no one seems particularly interested in changing it up.  A few of these films have won me over like McFarland U.S.A. and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day but on the other side of the coin you have disappointments like The Odd Life of Timothy Green and Million Dollar Arm.

The director of the overstuffed Million Dollar Arm, Craig Gillespie, returns to cinemas with The Finest Hours, a drama in real life adventure documenting the brave rescue of a crew on a sinking oil liner by a small Coast Guard boat.  The early trailers may have given most of the movie away, but to their credit they are far more exciting than the finished product.

Coast Guard Captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) barely has time to ask his commanding officer (Eric Bana, Closed Circuit) permission to marry his girlfriend (Holliday Grainger, Cinderella, Disney’s excellent 2015 offering) before he’s sent out to rescue the crew of SS Pendleton, a T-2 oil tanker headed for Boston ripped in half during a large weather system felt up and down the New England coast.  Aboard the failing ship, engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, Interstellar) overcomes crew resistance to lead the men on a risky maneuver in hopes of buying more time as their rescue vessel draws near.

All the makings of an exciting movie…if only we could see what was actually going on.  Gillespie and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Goosebumps, Blue Jasmine, the remake of Poltergeist) set so much of the film in the whiteout conditions on land or the rain heavy visages on the open sea that audiences will wind up relying on voice recognition to figure out who’s talking and what’s happening.  It doesn’t help that in dark lighting and soaking wet almost every male in the film starts to look alike, further complicating attempts to follow the action.  And did I mention it’s in 3D? And it’s the 3D that doesn’t improve the feature in the slightest, with the only noticeable dimensional change coming during the credits.

Pine makes another bid for dramatic leading man but it’s clear he’s better suited to being the captain of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness and the upcoming Star Trek Beyond.  With so many close-ups of his mournful (and, it must be said, slightly crossed) eyes, Pine emotes enough for the entire cast which is directly countered by Affleck’s barely awake effort.  Reacting to his sinking vessel or a fallen shipmate with the gusto of Rip Van Winkle, Affleck may have been going for laid-back but winds up flat-backed, sleepwalking through most of the film.

If there’s a reason to see the movie, it’s for Grainger as Bernie’s spitfire fiancée.  Determined not to lose the man she loves so soon after they get engaged, she’s got spirit to spare whether she’s standing up to Bernie’s boss or learning the hard realities of signing up to being the wife of a Coast Guard captain.  Alas, Grainger can’t be in two places at once so every time the film shifts back to the sea we feel her absence.  Poor Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) looks absolutely miserable as Bernie’s second in command…and not just because he spends the majority of the film sopping wet.  Foster is known to go all-in with his characters but feels restrained here and it clearly makes him uncomfortable.

Based on the novel The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, the script from Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson dallies around in the first half before rushing through the climactic rescue attempt that should be the dramatic peak of the film.  In all fairness, little weight is given to anything in the film but it’s strange the scene highlighted in all of the marketing materials comes up and is over so quickly.

Those feeling nostalgic for the films made by Walt Disney back in the studio’s live-action golden days were likely looking forward to The Finest Hours.  I know because I was one of them.  So it’s a bummer to report there’s a curious lack of the adventure and magic I had hoped to find in this true life tale of a rescue against all odds on the high seas.  While there were a few beacons of light to be found, should you choose to head out to sea with Pine and the gang the hours you’ll spend in the theater won’t be the finest…they’ll be merely fine.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Finest Hours

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Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.

Release Date:  January 29, 2016

Thoughts: I’m happy to see that the Walt Disney Studios continues to give a fair share of their time to produce live-action films to balance out their animation division.  True, I think the time has passed for the classic entertainment of their hey-day of the ‘50s and ‘60s but they seem committed to releasing stories that resonate with audiences.  It’s also true that the efforts can be hit or miss.  I loved 2015’s McFarland U.S.A. but was fairly underwhelmed with 2014’s Million Dollar Arm…thanks to Jon Hamm’s lackluster leading man performance and story told from the wrong perspective.  The director of that film, Craig Gillespie, is on board for Disney’s 2016 film The Finest Hours and it already looks like an improvement over his previous effort.

The true life tale of the “most daring rescue attempt in Coast Guard history”, this period piece boasts a nice assemblage of character actors and Chris Pine (Into the Woods) as the leading man.  As usual, I think the trailer is too long and gives too much away for a film of this nature…but if the final product captures that old-school Disney storytelling magic all will certainly be forgiven.

The Silver Bullet ~ Blackhat

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Synopsis: A man is released from prison to help American and Chinese authorities pursue a mysterious cyber criminal. The dangerous search leads them from Chicago to Hong Kong.

Release Date: January 16, 2015

Thoughts: Not that Michael Mann has ever been a director that turns out work on a regular basis, but it’s been nearly six years since Mann’s Public Enemies rolled out into theaters. Returning with the cyber action adventure Blackhat, the first look here is classic Mann with lots of shots of grandly styled action sequences sure to be interspersed with a flawlessly perfect (but icy cold) production design. Starring Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods) and Viola Davis (Prisoners), Blackhat will be unveiled mid-January of 2015, when audiences will be weary on award-ready dramas and in the mood for the type of skilled cinematic craftsmanship Mann has perfected over the years.