REVIEW: ‘Bumblebee’ is a Nostalgia-Fueled Delight

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‘Bumblebee’ has succeeded in delivering such a well-realized and satisfying Transformers film that it’s mind-boggling it took six movies to get here. This is not only the best film in the franchise, it’s one of the most joyous film experiences of the year.

When I resignedly walked into the theater for ‘Bumblebee’ I did not know who the director was. I only knew it was not Michael Bay. This was welcome news after subjecting myself to seeing every single one of the five previous films in the theater. Each inane exercise in bludgeoning CGI blizzardry felt like cinematic self-immolation. Every bloated installment brought along new blooming crises of conscience. “Why am I seeing this in theaters when there are a dozen more worthy films I didn’t support this year? Am I part of the problem?” Of course I’m part of the problem. There really is no excuse. Curiosity mixed with a feeling of pop cultural responsibility does not absolve me. I knew what I was getting going in. And after the two hour mark of every film, dizzied into submission by Bay’s second-unit snake oiling and crammed into increasingly-uncomfortable seats: I paid my price.

It really was more than that. Beneath the constant self -flagellation was a hope born in the nostalgic haze-memories of youth playing with Transformers toys and watching cartoons. I just wanted a good Transformers movie. Surely the infinite monkey theorem would bear fruit at some point. Surely the broken clock would be right at least once someday. It never happened. So although I didn’t know who directed ‘Bumblebee,’ I knew it wasn’t Michael Bay. And that was enough to bring me in, my expectations dragging on the floor behind me. Maybe Anyone-Other-Than-Michael-Bay was the hero we needed.

As it turns out, a quick trip to IMDB would have told me to possess high hopes. That’s okay though. Having low expectations is something I try to embrace as a life philosophy, film should be no exception.

‘Bumblebee’ is directed by Travis Knight and I should not have worried. There is pedigree here. Knight was a lead animator for Laika on films like ‘Coraline,’ ‘ParaNorman’ and ‘The Box Trolls’ before his directorial debut, the marvelous ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’ Like Brad Bird before him, he has made the leap from animation to live-action with remarkable acumen. The medium of stop-motion specifically has trained him with a sense of patience and thoughtful action-planning that is especially refreshing.

If clear and cohesive action was the only thing ‘Bumblebee’ brought to the table, it would have been enough, but ‘Bumblebee’ overachieves in almost every way. The opening scene is filled with such pitch-perfect fan service that I was on-board from the start. Optimus Prime looks like he is supposed to! Everyone looks like are supposed to! Starscream is there! Soundwave is there! And Ravage! Freaking Ravage!

Gone are muddled and overdesigned messes of gears. This is G1 all the way. My inner-twelve-year-old was already on his feet.

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If G1 Transformers was all ‘Bumblebee’ brought to the table, it would have been enough, but Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson crafted a heartfelt film that draws spirit from ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial,’ ‘The Iron Giant’ and ‘Short Circuit.’

It may be hard to remember a time before the first ‘Transformers,’ it’s hard to believe there ever was such a halcyon era, but one of the biggest mouthpieces for the first film was executive producer Steven Spielberg. At the time he summoned forth the ‘E.T.’ connection. He said he was first drawn to the project because of the simple story of “a boy and his car.” Unfortunately that took a backseat the to cavalcade of nonsense which would only become more nonsensical as the films went on. Bumblebee was less of a friend to Sam as he was a head-on-a-stick for Shia LeBeouf’s twitchy nerd-bro to shout at.

At the center of ‘Bumblebee’ is Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie Watson. She is a tomboy who exists as more than a caricature of a tomboy. This film is written by a woman. That should be remarked on. Not only because of it’s rarity in blockbuster cinema, but because of the fact that woman characters who are written by women are seldom as well-realized. Charlie is charming, complicated and real. She is a Smiths-loving, edgy 80s alternateen who still crushes on the washboard-stomached brainless hunk who doesn’t know she exists. Haunted by the sudden death of her father, she endlessly works on the car in her garage that her and her dad used to try to fix. She wants a car more than anything and makes regular trips to the junkyard, scavenging for parts. Her dad was a gearhead and her interest in cars is a way to feel closer to him. In many films her interest in cars would be a fetishized machination of hard-hearted toughness. In this film: it is character. If she can make that car run, maybe her dad will still be alive in some way.

It is one of these trips to the junkyard that she finds and old beaten-up VW bug. She tries to start it and the engine tries to turn over. This is more progress than she has ever made with her father’s classic convertible and after some light teasing, her junkyard-owning uncle gives it to her as a birthday gift. I don’t have to tell you the rest because you already know it. And while you’ve seen this story before, that’s perfectly fine because it works in all the right ways. The mute and clumsy Bumblebee is incredibly lovable and it is here where Knight’s animation background once again brings so much. Hailee Steinfeild who showed great promise as a young actress in films like The Coen Brother’s ‘True Grit’ plays Charlie with a depth and tenderness that shames every other human character in the previous films. There are scenes between her and Bumblebee spoken in whispers that illicit a true feeling of connection.

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The 80s setting is perfect not only as prequel/reboot but is the source for killer musical moments and endless era-appropriate references. Even if it does read at times like more of a cartoon of the 80s than the actual 80s, as this is based on an 80s cartoon, I’m willing to forgive it.

No throwback to 80s escapism would be complete without it’s narrow-sighted and obsessive military pursuer. And in this case he is played by John Cena. While I have found Cena passable in most of his film work, he is definitely the weakest link in the film. Still, his square-jawed buffoon is not a deal-breaker and even his most cringe-worthy moments never reach a hint of the embarrassment of John Turturro’s insufferable Agent Simmons.

Rounding out the cast are Charlie’s delightfully detached mom played by the always-great Pamela Adlon (‘Better Things’, ‘Louie’) and well-intentioned and clueless stepdad Stephen Schneider (‘Broad City’) who are the perfect representation of 80s Positivity-At-All-Costs parents. Finally is the delightful Jorge Lendeborg Jr. playing Memo, Charlie’s lovelorn sidekick who is so hilariously unnecessary and gets so spectacularly friendzoned that the angry Facebook comments almost write themselves. It’s gloriousbumblebee-excl-crop-no-wm

‘Bumblebee’ didn’t need to be this good. It could have coasted by as a better-than-expected pre-boot and simply sought to do no harm. It’s more than that. Travis Knight’s steady hand as an action director and talent for crafting small moments and Christina Hodson’s focus on characters you care about make this a really special film. ‘Bumblebee’ is not great-by-comparison. It’s simply great. I hope this is not only the launching point for a new series of Transformers films that learn from the copious mistakes of the previous films, but also for some of the most talented new voices in filmmaking.

I hope we can put those other ones behind us now. Maybe now we can start to heal.

‘BUMBLEBEE’ IS IN THEATERS NOW

 

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2018 Holiday & Awards Season Film Reviews and Recap – Cult Following #94

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It’s the thick of the Holiday film season spotlighting several new tentpole franchises and the streaming services are throwing out their big winter picks. Join us this episode as the gang spotlights several awards-season and holiday season must-sees. We have reviews of THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE, LOOK AWAY, THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE, ROMA, CAM, CHERRY POP, AQUAMAN, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, MEOW WOLF: ORIGIN STORY, and MORTAL ENGINES.

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Fall Movie Season & Black Friday Blu/4K Gift Guide Recap – Cult Following #93

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In this episode of Cult Following, the gang does a deep dive on the current fall season, with reviews of Netflix’s Cam. Ralph Breaks The Internet, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Roma, Suspiria, Overlord, plus capsule reviews of Slice, Lone Wolf and much more, plus a Black Friday gift guide.

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Deep Dive: Suspiria: 1977 vs. 2018 – Cult Following Podcast Xtra #1

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In this special bonus episode of Cult Following, join Victor Moreno and Adam Rutkowski as they chat about Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria in a deep dive and compare it to the Dario Argento 1977 original. Plus, the 2 discuss Walmart’s new series of VHS-inspired Blu Ray releases and talk about analog nostalgia and discuss other films and the Alamo Drafthouse in a bonus episode for Cult Following fans!

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Anna and the Apocalypse (2018) Review

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Anna and The Apocalypse

Directed by John McPhail

https://www.aatafilm.com/

Musicals were once an institute of American cinema but have only found sporadic success during the last half century. Some films might spin integral soundtracks but full on song and dance numbers are not particularly commonplace. Horror is not usually a genre known for its stage adaptations though hits like “The Evil Dead” and “The Toxic Avenger” are ample proof of the possibilities although both of those were heavy on humor and gleeful with the gore making the experience more silly than scary.

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“Anna and the Apocalypse,” a 2017 festival circuit favorite finally making it to wide release and US cinemas is a UK film that mixes the influence of its homegrown horror hallmarks “Shaun of the Dead” and “28 Days Later” harnessing the comedy of the former and over the top gore of the latter (and the somber undertones of both) and mixing with a toe tapping, clap happy sing along ready score.

On the surface, this probably sounds like a truly terrible idea hatched from an executive at Hot Topic studios who is still wondering if some ninjas and pirates should be added in digitally like Jabba The Hutt for the special edition. Reservations are reasonable with a “zombie musical” but Anna and Company stuff stockings with Billboard ready material, blood soaked sets and a very different take on holiday horror.

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The hamlet of Little Haven features a rag tag group of friends, acquaintances and enemies who on the Eve of Christmas awaken to a full-blown zombie apocalypse that’s overtaken the British Isle and as everyone learns, the entire world. The characters do develop over the course of the film through both script and song in the John Hughes mold; nothing is particularly scene stealing or mold breaking but attempts to add depth and discussion in the 90- minute running time and numerous vaudeville numbers succeed more often than they fail.

The core cast of Ella Hunt as the strong and charming Anna, intelligent and awkward outcast Steph played by Sarah Swire, Malcom Cumming portrays Anna’s meek best friend at odds with Anna’s love interest and school bully Chris played by Ben Wiggens while couple Chris and Lisa are played respectively by Chris Leveaux and Marli Siu (who reminds me a bit of a Scottish Sarah Hyland, both in appearance and attitude). All are adept at their acting craft though Ella Hunt, Sarah Swire, Ben Wiggins and Christopher Leveaux have the strongest vocal talents by far.

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And the songs (composed by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly) are the stars here and not paying heed to the soundtracks best selections would be a sin worthy of the naughty list. The uptempo catharsis of “Break Away” is kind of Kelly Clarkson-like (fitting since the same title was one of her biggest hits, though like that song, this one also sounds like it was co-written by Avril Lavinge) with plenty of power, pathos and pop. “Hollywood Ending” is arguably the catchiest cut of the bunch, reminiscent of something off Radio Disney (the lyrics even name check the House of Mouse) with infectious hooks, gorgeous vocal layers and gooey bubblegum goodness. The in-film school holiday talent show features a short but funny “Fish Wrap” that goes over as well as one would expect but the laugh out loud portion that deserves all the accolades is the absolutely hilarious “It’s That Time of Year” where actress Marli Siu does her best “Mean Girls” song and dance routine with far more risqué lyrics and sexy moves. “Soldier At War” is pure sassy power pop that sounds like a Survivor outtake from a lost sports drama of the 80s with a 21st century gloss. “Human Voice” is another standout, it’s emotional alt rock charm having some real resonance as does the somber curtain call of “I Will Believe” that’s mournful but with a defiant spirit, giving it a gorgeous melancholy warmth. A handful of the these

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What elevates “Anna and the Apocalypse” is that while it has some initial oblivious reactions from the cast to the zombie hordes (especially evident in a memorable musical number that apes “Shaun of the Dead” with a loving homage to that horror comedy classic) the very real chaos, confusion and loss that would occur if such a catastrophe were to occur is never dampened. Many die, selfish nature abounds, the dark side of humanity rises – all common fodder for post-apocalyptic cinema but having balls to the wall brutality contrasted with sunshine showtunes creates a dichotomy that makes “Anna and the Apocalypse” a better film than most would expect and likely, a future holiday film tradition for many.

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