Tag Archives: B-

BUMBLEBEE

Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Tom DeSanto, Don Murphy, Michael Bay and Mark Vahradian
Director: Travis Knight
Writer: Christina Hodson
Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Dricker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Peter Cullen and Dylan O'Brien
Studio: Paramount Pictures

B-

After Michael Bay’s last atrocious “Transformers” movie “The Last Knight,” you really had to wonder whether another based on the Hasbro toy line was necessary. Perhaps not, but “Bumblebee” shows that the franchise about alien robots that turn into cars still has some gas left in the tank.

Directed by Travis Knight with a significantly lighter touch than Bay could ever manage, the movie is a prequel of sorts, being set in 1987 as the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons back on Cybertron has reached crisis point and Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) must order retreat and retrenchment. He tasks B-127 (Dylan O’Brien), later to be called Bumblebee, to travel to earth to protect the planet as a future refuge for his reassembled force of warriors.

B-127 follows orders but crash lands in the middle of a Special Ops training exercise being led by a gruff military man named Jack Burns (John Cena); a firefight and chase ensue, ended only when Decepticon Blitzwing (David Sobolov) intervenes in pursuit of B-127. In their battle Blitzwing destroys B-127’s voicebox and damages his memory, but B-127 rallies, defeats Blitzwing and goes into hiding.

Thus far the picture has been standard-issue if smaller-scaled “Transformers” fare, and frankly none too interesting. Now, however, the focus turns to Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a girl living in a nearby Northern California town who’s just turning eighteen. Still mourning the death of her beloved father (heart attack) and trying to get along with her mom Sally (Pamela Adlon), stepdad Ron (Stephen Schneider) and younger brother Otis (Jason Drucker), she’s bullied by the mean girls even as Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), her neighbor and co-worker at the local boardwalk, is clearly infatuated with her. (We’ll also learn that she was once an avid high diver, but is terrified to jump since her dad, also her coach, died. Naturally that wrinkle will reappear in the climactic action scene.)

What Charlie wants more than anything is a car, and kindly junkyard owner Hank (Len Cariou) gives her one as a birthday gift—a broken-down yellow Volkswagen Beetle she’s found on his lot. It is, of course, B-127 in disguise. It’s not long before Charlie’s work on the car causes B-127 to emerge, and after coming to terms with the transformation she calls him Bumblebee (after a nest that had settled in the Volkswagen’s interior). They bond, of course, and Memo gets involved with them too, which takes the movie into “E.T.” territory, with slapstick sequences of the robot trashing the Watson home (and taking comic revenge on mean girl Tina, played by Grace Dzienny) while learning to converse, after a fashion, by using pop tunes of the period he accesses by moving through a radio dial.

Charlie’s efforts to repair the car have also released a hologram of Optimus that begins to trigger Bumblebee’s memory; unfortunately, it also serves as a beacon for two Decepticons, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), to follow B-127 to earth, where they persuade scientist Dr. Powell (John Ortiz), a throwback to the naïve researchers of old 1950s sci-fi movies, and in turn the U.S. military establishment, to help them track him down; they say he represents a common threat. That returns the movie to “Transformers” mode, though the “E.T.” thread never entirely disappears, as Charlie, Memo, and even Otis, Sally and Ron join the battle on Bumblebee’s side. (In the end, even Burns becomes convinced that they’re right.)

That seems an odd combination, and there are other movies one could point to that bear some similarity to “Bumblebee” as well—not least last year’s bomb “Monster Truck” (not to mention Disney’s “Love Bug”). But writer Christina Hodson brings a genial sense of humor to the proceedings, and Knight uses the nostalgic thirty-year old references to nifty effect, not only in the use of pop tunes, but innumerable cultural references that viewers of a certain age will savor. The cast throw themselves into the spirit of things, with Steinfeld creating an engaging young heroine and Lendeborg an equally agreeable sidekick; in his few scenes Drucker proves an asset, too—though we didn’t need his throwing-up scene. Then there’s Cena, who once again shows that he has considerable comic chops to go along with his he-man physique.

Of course, for all its pleasures this remains a “Transformers” movie, and the protracted battle sequences have a been-there, done-that quality that makes one’s heart sink whenever they pop up. (The CGI in these scenes, moreover, is visually a bit messy. Happily, it’s better in the scenes in which only Bumblebee is involved.) There are also too many resurrection moments—when Bumblebee has apparently been killed but suddenly reawakens (“E.T.,” of course, had only one). But Enrique Chediak’s cinematography is fine, and editor Paul Rubell has kept things to a trim running-time of under two hours, a nice change from most of today’s overlong superhero entries.

By itself “Bumblebee” doesn’t justify the continuation of “Transformers” franchise—nothing could completely make up for “The Last Knight”—but it’s better than anybody had a right to expect.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Producer: Avi Arad, Amy Pascal, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and Christina Steinberg
Director: Bob Persiichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman
Writer: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman
Stars: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber, Jorma Taccone, Marvin Jones III, Joaquin Cosio, Lake Bell and Zoe Kravitz
Studio: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

B-

In the Marvel Empire’s implacable drive to turn every screen in every theatre in the world into one long Saturday-morning-style TV lineup of superhero movies, new tricks are constantly being devised to increase product. In addition to the company’s own so-called universe of interlocking franchises, the comic book-based operation has happily fostered series based on characters controlled by other studios, including Spider-Man: they’ve encouraged Sony’s string of features starring the web-slinger, and even taken his latest incarnation into their “Avengers” pantheon.

They’ve also gone along with Sony’s plan to turn Spidey’s villains into a string of spin-off movies, beginning with the unaccountably successful “Venom,” which will inevitably become a franchise of its own and signal the production of movies featuring other bad-guys. And now they’ve joined with Columbia in returning to Spider-Man’s roots on the printed page with an animated feature based on some of the comic’s more recent narrative permutations, particularly the emergence of the younger, mixed-race Spider-Boy Miles Morales and other Spideys from different realities. With its array of new characters, “Into the Spider-Verse” not only invites sequels but spin-offs galore.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about it, though, is that it’s actually pretty good, especially in the visual department. That pretty much insures it won’t be a one-shot, but a geyser, more fuel for the realization of Marvel’s ultimate goal of cinematic domination—though to be sure, Disney’s other behemoths (the “Star Wars” universe, its own live-action and animated juggernauts) will be there to fill in any gaps.

What especially sets “Spider-Verse” apart is the animation style, which takes its cue from the look of vintage comic books, with their limited color range and explosions of action in almost strobe-light movement. The effect can be irritating at times, but overall quite satisfying, with individual scenes often looking like panels taken from an actual strip, with the usual exaggerations of perspective and motion. It’s certainly distinctive, and even without 3D adds a new dimension to Spidey’s world.

Or “worlds,” if one wants to be accurate, because the plot rests on the existence of alternate realities where different spider-beings reside. One such is that where the young protagonist, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), is being sent to a prestigious boarding school by his stern but loving father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), an NYPD cop who considers Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine) a showboating vigilante, and his loving mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez).

Miles, who resents being sent to his new school, has a special rapport with his father’s looser brother Aaron (Mahershala Ali), and it’s on an expedition into the subway tunnel system with him that the boy is bitten by a radioactive spider and begins to experience his new powers. Venturing back to the tunnel, he comes upon the “real” Spider-Man doing battle with the Green Goblin; Spidey is trying to prevent the ultimate villain, Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) from starting up what looks like some sort of super-collider that can act as a portal between alternate realities—apparently Kingpin wants to use the device to connect again with his late wife and son—and rescues Miles in the process, offering to teach him the tricks of their joint trade. But before they can cement a partnership, Spider-Man is killed by Kingpin—not, however, before he hands over to Miles a flash drive that can shut down the villain’s mad mechanism, which begins humming.

From here the script juxtaposes two major threads. The first concerns Miles’s struggle to overcome his fears and learn to control his new powers, which include the ability to go invisible. The second involves the appearance of a bunch of new spider-folks from different dimensions. One is another version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), dissolute and overweight after suffering a tragic loss, who effectively becomes the boy’s new mentor. Then there’s Spider-Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), a new girl at the school. Added to them are the black-and-white Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage), anime-style heroine Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her Spider-Robot, and oddest of all, the cartoon Peter Porker, aka Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Nor should one forget the dead Parker’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), who turns out to be sort of a den mother for new Spideys from various places.

All of them join forces to derail Kingpin’s scheme by taking on not only the hulking guy himself but his confederates, Olivia or “Doc” Octopus (Kathryn Hahn), Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone), Tombstone (Marvin Jones III), Scorpion (Joaquin Cosio) and, most importantly, the sinister masked enforcer Prowler, whose real identity proves one of those shocking Darth Vader-like surprises now common in genre movies.

There are enough extended fights and chases in “Spider-Verse” to keep any Spidey devotee happy, and relative outsiders to the Spider-Man domain as well. While the plethora of characters and esoteric plot elements might be fully appreciated only by extreme fan-boys and bewilder more causal viewers—those acquainted with just the live-action movies, or a few issues of the comic in its early, glory days—the dazzling visuals and jaunty verbal attitude should make the movie one that anybody can enjoy, at least in some measure.

As to sequels, one can expect as many of those as there are dimensions in the spider-verse. Whether that leaves you gleefully expectant or utterly depressed will be a matter of taste.