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.

 

Movie Review ~ Love, Simon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Simon Spier keeps a huge secret from his family, his friends, and all of his classmates: he’s gay. When that secret is threatened, Simon must face everyone and come to terms with his identity.

Stars: Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Miles Heizer, Keiynan Lonsdale, Logan Miller, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Tony Hale

Director: Greg Berlanti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I was recently reading a book about the impact of John Hughes and The Brat Pack on the generation of teens that grew up in the mid ‘80s.  The book talked about what was going on at the time and how movies once celebrated as sleepover musts are now revered as essential entertainment time capsules for those that came of age in the Reagan era.  I was slightly too young for that wave of influential filmmaking, though I was in my prime when ‘90s teen classics like Clueless, Cruel Intentions, Scream, and 10 Things I Hate About You were first released and I feel that same sense of protection about them.  So I understand why the early buzz around Love, Simon compares the viewing experience to the influential teen movies that came before it.

I tend to recoil at films that are so current that they’ll become dated in six months but Love, Simon is a rare exception.  It’s a genuine gem that speaks to those navigating high school life now while evoking a palpable sense of wistfulness to audience members like me who so wish they had something as assured and confident as this when they were a kid. Yes, Love, Simon is the kind of truthful message movie I wish I had on VHS on the shelf between The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Simon Spier lives a pretty good life.  His family, his house, his friends, his high school experience all seem like the dictionary definition of growing up without much complication.  Yet Simon is more complex than people think.  He’s gay and struggling with resolving some inner conflict about that fact but outwardly showing no signs of stress (or so he thinks).  The good news is that there’s not a lot of self-loathing on display here so it’s not the torturous experience other films have made the coming out saga to be.  He doesn’t hate that he’s gay, he just doesn’t know the right way to say it and risk losing out on future happiness.

Surrounded by friends with their own romantic hang-ups, Simon finds a kindred spirit in the form of an e-mail relationship with an anonymous fellow student who is gay as well.  Reaching out first as a way to take his own baby steps out of the closest, he becomes closer and closer to the guy on the other side of the e-mail who can’t reveal his identity.  Not knowing whom the friend he calls Blue looks like, Simon starts to imagine who it could be.  Is it the handsome quarterback that has a sensitive side?  What about the pianist for the high school musical?  Or could it be the Waffle House employee?  When the e-mails are discovered by a fellow classmate and Simon is blackmailed into playing matchmaker or risk being outed, he finds being gay is the least of his worries as friendships, true love, and familial bonds are tested the more he tries to hide who he is.

As Simon, Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) is a handsome star in the making that ably carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders. Though he’s Hollywood Leading Man Gay, meaning not too gay, he convincingly plays the conflict without making the journey the least bit maudlin.  By presenting Simon as “just like you”, a balance of normalcy is struck that shows the audience that being gay is who you are and not what ultimately defines you.

Simon’s friends include Katherine Langford (Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Keiynan Lonsdale (The Finest Hours), and Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) as a charmingly diverse group that feels like they could be friends had they gone to high school together.  Though each have their own secrets that arise during the course of the film, these developments don’t feel forced or simply existing in service to Simon’s coming out rite of passage.  The adults in the film wisely say their piece and let the youngsters take the spotlight, but kudos to Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club), Josh Duhamel (Safe Haven) for presenting understanding but not phony portrayals of Simon’s parents.  As the Vice Principal of Simon’s school, Tony Hale (American Ultra) has some good moments and special mention must go to Natasha Rothwell as a drama teacher that hates her job and Clark Moore as an out and proud gay man at Simon’s school that has two of the funniest lines in the whole film.

Yeah, let’s not forget that as dramatic as the story arc may be this is still a teen comedy at heart and the film is consistently funny throughout.  The parties, the hallway discussions, the afterhours heart-to-hearts, the long walks home, the car rides…all strike a nice balance between sentiment and humor without tipping the scales either way.  Adapting Becky Albertalli’s popular YA novel, screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker have played around with some characters and characteristics from the source novel without losing the message of Albertalli’s original work.  Director Greg Berlanti resists against getting overly saccharine as the film develops and Simon’s secret starts to get out – there’s pain and hurt but laughter winds up making the wounds sting less.

If there’s one thing that might keep Love, Simon from achieving long-lasting high rank status it’s that it feels like the fantasy way a coming out story would go.  While Simon claims to be just like us in the opening voice-over, can the majority of teens that will see the film relate to a privileged white guy who gets a new car for his birthday, doesn’t seem to have a job but has spending money, lives in an upscale home in the suburbs, and has more than his share of compassionate and understanding family and friends?  Also, there’s an uncomfortable value placed on looks – when Simon is scoping the halls for Blue and pondering who he could be he wrinkles his nose in horror at bearded nerds, Game of Thrones loving dorks, and roly poly dweebs.  Heaven forbid Blue turns out to be an ug-o.

Yet the film ultimately has its heart and message in the right place and any nitpicks are easily shooed away in favor of recognizing the accomplishment at a major movie studio putting out a sweet love story surrounding a gay youth and his friends.  It may not live totally in the reality of now but it rhymes with the truth without much discord.  Now if people will actually line up to see this…that would be the real victory.