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Friday, January 18, 2019

Glass

GLASS

** SPOILERS **

M. Night Shyamalan's compelling, confounding, and idiosyncratic Glass is like looking at an elegant chandelier. We marvel at its construction, the way it captures light and color, the reflection of ourselves we see in its crystal, the audacity of its design, and then the chandelier falls on top of our heads. Elegant.

Glass is, of course, the sequel to Unbreakable and Split 19 years in the making. A lot has changed since Night, then a wunderkind at the peak of his powers, dazzled us with his comic book-inspired origin story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), an ordinary man who discovers he's superhuman. Unbreakable was released in 2000, at a time when superhero movies had just experienced the start of an unprecedented boom that began with Bryan Singer's X-Men, which had arrived just months before. Two decades later, in an age where there have been dozens of superhero movies that cost hundreds of millions and have grossed billions of dollars, Night returns to the genre with Glass, a superhero movie that has no budget to be a superhero movie but goes for it anyway. One of Night's most obvious tricks is the way he repeatedly telegraphs a climactic showdown at Osaka Tower, the newly-built tallest building in Philadelphia, but the hero and villains never make it there - it's not in the budget! 

In Glass, the older and greyer David Dunn has become a local legend, a superhero vigilante called the Overseer (also called the Tip-Toe Man and the Green Guard). David is on the hunt for Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), also known as the Horde, who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder and manifested 23 distinct personalities that serve the 24th, the superhuman, animalistic Beast. Now a widower after his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) died of leukemia five years prior, David runs a home security firm with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) but he has no clients, which conveniently lets him walk the streets of Philadelphia looking for the Horde. Joseph is David's Man in the Chair and he still adoringly worships his super dad. Meanwhile, the Horde is up to his old tricks, kidnapping teenage girls to feed to the Beast. David and Joseph's strategy is to walk around Philadelphia hoping David runs into the Horde and sure enough, he does! That was easy! After a super-tussle filmed with a bizarre crosscutting of first-person POV and wide angle shots of two men shoving each other into walls and through a window, David and the Horde are captured by the police and remanded to the care of psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson).

The rest of Glass takes place almost entirely in the gloomy, foreboding Raven Hill Memorial Hospital (is Hannibal Lecter in the basement?), which is now outfitted with multiple cameras and elaborate traps to hold three captives who, according to Dr. Staple, suffer from the delusion of grandeur that they are superheroes. Staple (that is to say Night) telegraphs a climactic twist when she says "they" gave her three days to convince David, Kevin, and the third inmate, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the mastermind who helped create David and has been imprisoned ever since, that it's all in their heads. David's cell is built to spray him with gallons of water if he gets out of line; water is his weakness, but whereas before in Unbreakable, it was inferred that David was susceptible to drowning because of the density of his unbreakable bones and skin, now, apparently even a cold shower renders David powerless. Meanwhile, Kevin's cell is built with strobe lights that force him to instantly switch among his 24 personalities. Each time Kevin goes for the door, the lights force him back, and none of his 24 personalities ever think to just close his eyes. Meanwhile, Elijah keeps appearing out of his cell despite the hospital keeping him heavily sedated.

The kindly but mysterious Dr. Staple tries to convince David, Elijah, and Kevin that the only thing special about them is how crazy they are and she starts to get through to the Overseer and the Horde. As they begin to doubt themselves, each inmate has their particular True Believer visit them at the hospital: David has Joseph, Elijah has his mother Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard), and Kevin has Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the girl he abducted in Split but the Beast let go because, as children who suffered abuse at the hands of a parent, they are kindred spirits. To better understand Kevin, Casey gives herself a comic book 101 crash course while Dr. Staple rails against comic books and the fanboys at Comic-Con in a bizarre rant that comes out of left field, but it sets up an overall statement about the genre that Night seems to be building to.

Eventually, Elijah plays his hand: he wants the bad guys, Mr. Glass and the Beast, to team up and blow up Osaka Tower. Naturally, David has to free himself and stop them and it culminates with an epic super brawl at Osaka Tower a weirdly staged super tussle in the hospital parking lot. David fights the Beast but there's plenty of time for asides with all of the major players as the Big Reveal is dropped, which is shocking to anyone who didn't figure it out already: Kevin's dad was in the same train crash that David was in back in 2000, ergo Mr. Glass created Kevin Crumb's super-villain at the same time he created David Dunn the superhero. And then, just as that sinks in, all three super people are dead in horrible fashion! A SWAT Team drowns David in a puddle, shoot Kevin in the stomach, and Mr. Glass dies from his wounds when the Beast mauls him. 

As all three die in the arms of their True Believers, Night drops his Real Trademark Climactic Twist: the "they" Dr. Staple referred to earlier is a secret society that has existed for 10,000 years who have suppressed and eliminated superhumans as they've emerged into the world. This unnamed cabal has black cloverleaf tattoos on their wrists and likes to dine at a particularly fancy restaurant. Then, Dr. Staple learns Elijah's Twist: he was never planning on blowing up Osaka Tower (it's just not in the budget); the Mastermind wanted Ravin Hill's hundreds of cameras to record the fight between David and the Beast so the True Believers could remotely upload the footage to everyone's TV and phones. The point was for people to see for themselves that superhuman people exist.

So what's Night going for here? Seems to me he has a couple of Big Ideas. One, Elijah, who believed in comic book superheroes being real his whole life and was dismissed as crazy for two decades, wanted the world to see what he knows is real. Whether or not the world believes the footage isn't the point, it's about Mr. Glass' line that "we allow ourselves to be superheroes" - i.e. it's the other people in the world who believe that they are special but deny it who Elijah is trying to reach, so that they see there are others in the world like them and that it might spark their own emergence. "It was always an origin story," Elijah declares with his dying breath. If Unbreakable was David's origin story, Glass is the origin story of a bigger universe of superheroes. (A universe that we may never see any more of.)

The second Big Idea Night seems to be going for is a statement about shared superhero movie universes themselves. Glass is so weirdly shot and staged where the cinematography robs both David and Kevin of the moody atmosphere that was so effective and important to the tones of Unbreakable and Split. While using colors to differentiate the characters and their moods, with the muted pink room symbolizing Kevin and David's doubts about themselves, Night seems to be saying that taking these heroes and villains out of their universes that were expressly designed for them and putting them together is in itself drab and robs them of their atmosphere, which was part of their effectiveness. For instance, look no further than how the shadowy universe of Batman had to be cartooned up so the Dark Knight could fit in Justice League, which diluted Batman and turned him into a mere action figure playing with other action figures. The sheer weirdness of Glass is like Night saying a shared superhero universe doesn't always benefit the superheroes themselves, hence the fearsome Beast becomes about as scary as the Hulk is when he's hanging out with the Avengers. (It also hurts when you don't have a competitive budget.)

So, Glass is weird, and awkward, and frustrating, but also compelling, brave, and fascinating. McAvoy goes for broke, jumping back and forth between a couple of dozen personalities at the drop of a hat while still making each one feel distinct. Once he's allowed to stop Faking It Buster Bluth-style and lets loose, Jackson relishes playing Mr. Glass again. The odd one out is poor Bruce Willis, who has little to do except wait around to fight and die, in that order. David just fades into the background and has the thankless job of being the stoic good guy. Compared to his flashy villains, Night was interested in David Dunn the least and ultimately, Glass is an ignoble ending for our Unbreakable superhero. Paulson is terrific as Staple, keeping her cards close to the vest the whole film, and there isn't nearly enough of the magnetic Taylor-Joy, who steals every scene she's in, especially with McAvoy. A film whose plot points are fueled by coincidence and contrivance, Glass is very much like the heretofore mentioned chandelier that eventually falls on your head, but what a way to go.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Escape Room

ESCAPE ROOM

** SPOILERS **

Maybe a dozen years ago, I did an Escape Room with my friends on my birthday. It was Egyptian pyramid-themed and it took us about an hour to beat the game. That experience worked out a lot better for us than Escape Room does for the unwitting victims in director Adam Robitel's tight and well-made film, where six strangers are picked to go into an Escape Room and have their lives taped to find out what happens when Escape Rooms stop acting polite and start getting real. 

Escape Room kicks off a little like The Breakfast Club: a half-dozen random people accept personalized invitations to show up at a Chicago skyscraper on Thanksgiving Day. They are shy physics student Zoey (Netflix's Lost in Space's Taylor Russell), supermarket stock boy Ben (Logan Miller), ex-soldier Amanda (Daredevil's Deborah Ann Woll), affable trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), video game nerd Danny (Nik Dodani), and cocksure stock trader Jason (Jay Ellis). The six appear to have nothing in common - something Jason is keen to point out with smart ass comments to establish his alpha-male status - except the desire to win the promised $10,000 prize (Jason doesn't care about the money; he's attending as a courtesy to his billionaire client). Danny claims to be a veteran of multiple escape rooms and he's eager to provide the necessary exposition to the other players and the audience - no surprise then that he's the first to die when the game turns very real.

The skyscraper owned by Minos Escape Rooms, world-renowned for the finest escape room experiences, turns out to be a labyrinth: the waiting room is actually the first room of the game that transforms into a giant convection oven. The rest of the rooms are as follows: a winter hunting lodge, a frozen lake, an upside-down pool hall (the most visually striking and clever room), a hospital triage center, an Alice in Wonderland-like room of optical illusions, and a well-appointed study where the walls close in to crush you like the trash compactor on the Death Star. Each room feels eerily familiar to each contestant as they gradually realize Minos mined their past to make the death traps distinctly personal. Essentially, they're unwittingly in a Hunger Games scenario where only one is meant to survive and the victims are being watched, not just by Minos, but by Minos' unseen clientele of billionaire backers who finance this twisted form of private entertainment.

The secret of why these particular six people were invited in the first place is revealed: they are all sole survivors of tragic accidents. This, and more, is explained to Ben, the unlikely winner, by the Gamesmaster (Yorick van Wageningen). If the Gamesmaster looks and sounds creepily familiar, it's because he's the same guy who raped and tortured Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Yet despite what a scumbag the Gamesmaster clearly is, he finds out he works for even bigger scumbags. The Minos corporation immediately places him in the game to murder Ben Corleone-style but Zoey suddenly reappears; she's perfectly alive and toting a gun. Zoey realized that the omnipresent cameras were Minos' greatest advantage and by applying the Quantum Zeno effect (physics is useful, kids!) - which basically means atoms being watched can't change - Zoey smashed their cameras and faked her own death. Essentially, Zoey cheated the game and she's as clever as James T. Kirk beating the Kobayashi Maru. Together, Ben and Zoey murder the Gamesmaster and win the game - but no money (womp womp). 

Later, when Zoey brings the police, they find the building is nothing but an empty shell with a graffitti anagram left for Zoey: NO WAY OUT, an anagram for WOOTAN YU, the name they thought belonged the Gamesmaster. Zoey takes this as a personal challenge to take on Minos and she even figures out their corporate logo secretly contains coordinates to their New York City headquarters (now, why would Minos hide their address in their logo??). Six months later, after learning Minos staged 'accidents' to explain the deaths of Mike, Danny, Jason, and Amanda, Zoey and Ben vow to go to NYC and bring down the mysterious Minos corporation - but little do they know they're back in a new game where Minos has their flight information and already plots to turn their airplane into a new Escape Room for them (womp womp).

Escape Room is efficiently staged, sufficiently clever, and showcases fully-gung-ho performances from the cast. The film pulls off a neat trick where, like the characters, we meet a group of people we're not sure we're even gonna like, but thanks to solid writing, the committed performances of the cast, and the extreme nature of their ordeal, we end up rooting for them for them to survive the game. Minos Escape Rooms, however, is as absurd as the Delos Corporation is in Westworld. Apparently Minos is a (possibly ancient) global conglomerate that stages elaborate and expensive death traps to kill people and employs a team of workers whose job is to clean up the evidence and get rid of the corpses as well as research the lives of the next batch of people to kill - this is some business model! No doubt if Zoey and Ben even make it to New York City, they'll find the Minos building is also a giant Escape Room. Why, all the world's an Escape Room, and the men and women are merely players (who never get the money - womp womp).

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Screen Rant Best of 2018

SCREEN RANT BEST OF 2018

2018 was my second year as a Features writer for Screen Rant and this was the year I finally felt like I came into my own, especially in the latter half. Writing about Marvel, DC, and all the nerdy things I like - and being paid for it - is a privilege I'm very lucky to have. And while Marvel, DC, and Star Wars pay the bills, this year I was fortunate to diversify my subject matter and write about a lot of the other movies and television shows that interest me, which was particularly satisfying and something I plan to do even more of in 2019.

I wrote 255 Features in 2018 for a total of 471 since I began in January 2017 - for a guy who liked to review a few movies a month tops on this very blog, this is an output that staggers and surprises me. But I'm very proud of my growing body of work and I think I've improved immensely as a writer. I thank my very British editors Alex Leadbeater and Hannah Shaw-Williams for honing my skills the way Superman can crush a piece of coal and find a diamond inside. Or at least a very shiny cubic zirconia. 

Below is my selection of the Screen Rant Features I'm proudest of for a variety of reasons; mainly because I feel like with these, I brought the goods to a fun smorgasbord of nerdy subjects. I would call this my favorite and best work in 2018. Thanks to everyone who has read my Features and I hope they were worth the click. Onward to 2019 and year three - the best is yet to come!













 













 













 
















 




Friday, December 21, 2018

Aquaman

AQUAMAN

** SPOILERS **

Aquaman has sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to them - this movie is Dr. Evil's dream come true. Director James Wan goes for the gusto with the outlandishly entertaining Aquaman, the movie equivalent of tossing the biggest net you can find in the ocean and seeing how many crazy sea critters you catch. Turns out, the movie is an all-you-can-eat fish fry and clambake and it's kinda delicious: Aquaman is a superhero movie, a Game of Thrones-like political power struggle, a sweeping mythological adventure, a screwball rom-com, a Lord of the Rings-like epic fantasy, and a story about two brothers who miss their mommy and macho guys who love their daddies. It's a movie where a bunch of local tough guys confronts Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in a tavern, threateningly ask him if he's "the fish boy on the TV", and then do a 180 and beg for a selfie - which Arthur grudgingly acquiesces before doing a 180 and drunkenly parties with them like frat boys. Awright!

Momoa is certainly not without his gruff charms and musky odors and Aquaman takes full advantage of them. Arthur Curry might be a hairy, tattooed, hulking brute with bulletproof skin and super strength, but he's downright Hallmark card poetic about how his parents met. "Theirs was a love that was never meant to be," Arthur breathlessly narrates as we watch the meet-cute of how kindly Maine lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temura Morrison) found the beautiful Queen Atlanna of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman) washed up on his beach during a storm in 1985. Soon, they fall in love and have Arthur, who is referred to as "half-breed" and "bastard" quite regularly by everyone in Atlantis, especially Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur's half-brother who is now King of Atlantis. Atlanna fled the lost undersea kingdom to avoid an arranged marriage but soon Atlantis' stormtroopers find her and force her back home. She's convicted of treason and sacrificed to the blind, ravenous sea monsters in the Trench.

Meanwhile, Arthur was trained by Vulko (Willem Dafoe) in how to use his superpowers and how to fight with a trident. Arthur's greatest power, however, is his ability to talk to fish, and it comes in really handy when Aquaman references Pinocchio. Of course, Arthur becomes a superhero known as the Aquaman and defeated Steppenwolf along with the Justice League, but none of that is important and DCEU admin only gets a passing mention - Aquaman has much bigger fish to fry. Orm wants to unite the remaining four of Atlantis' seven kingdoms and declare himself Ocean Master, then he wants to attack the surface world. Orm's beef with landlubbers is the hundreds of years we've callously polluted the seas with trash and toxic waste; his first-strike is to send tidal waves around the world, returning all of our trash right back to our shores. Frankly, it's hard to not see Orm's point here, and I was kind of on his side - people suck. But Arthur doesn't want the genocide of 7 billion people so he has to stop his half-brother. And the only way to do that, Mera (Amber Heard) the Princess of Atlantis, tells him, is to become King of the Seven Seas. 

However, Arthur is a guy who understands his limitations and knows he's not exactly king material. Regardless, after a Black Panther-like a mano e mano trident fight for the throne between Arthur and Orm, Mera commits treason for a reason and escapes with Arthur to find the lost Trident of Atlan, a super weapon that can command the seas and, according to dusty old Atlantean law, automatically makes whoever can find and wield it the one true King, and every fish man and monster has to obey that law no questions asked! This is where the goofy, Romancing the Stone-like adventure part of the movie kicks in as Arthur and Mera solve grade school riddles to find the Trident, but they also have a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants-like romantic interlude in Sicily - before they're rudely attacked by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a deadly science pirate who works for Orm, now wears killer Atlantean armor, and has a grudge against Aquaman over the death of his father. Later, Arthur has a moment on a boat with Mera where he reflects on how he made Manta his enemy by choosing not to save Manta's dad and it's a surprising and pleasing level of thoughtful introspection that shows great depth to the Aquaman. (Wonder Woman also had a nice moment between Diana and Steve Trevor on a boat - those DC superheroes have some of their best banter on boats).

The rest of Aquaman is a giddy and ridiculously entertaining, eye-popping spectacle as the movie shows us all of the Kingdoms of Atlantis lit up by florescent jellyfish, and they are all full of fish men, sea monsters, the aforementioned sharks with frickin' laser beams, giant crabs, giant seahorses, and an octopus playing the bongos underwater that's like a middle finger to Ant-Man and the Wasp's giant ant playing the drums. The Atlanteans also utilize marine life as labor the way The Flintstones made dinosaurs to do their dirty work. There's an effective horror sequence where Arthur and Mera race to escape the swarms of blind, toothy sea monsters of the Trench and a face-to-face confrontation between Arthur and a mythical leviathan named Karathen (voiced by Julie Andrews!), and that's before all of the motley creatures and warriors of the sea go to war with each other, which is settled by Aquaman, clad in his orange and green armor, triumphantly wielding the Trident of Atlan. "He commands the sea!" someone bellows when Aquaman shows up riding Karathen into battle and man, he sure does. 

As Aquaman, Momoa is a magnetic and likable presence who acts before he thinks but impresses Mera by knowing a lot about history. Drinking in a pub and talking about Marcus Agrippa and the history of Rome with King Arthur would be a lot of fun for me. Wilson doesn't have much on the page as Orm, but with a gleam in his eye that betrays he knows a lot more than he's saying, Wilson's charisma clocks Orm in as the best villain the DCEU has offered so far. As Mera, Heard's acting is as stiff as a trident, but we warm to her as she warms to Arthur, and her power to control and weaponize water is used effectively - especially her super cool red wine spike attack. Kidman, playing Janet Van Dyne in the third act, is a royal presence indeed as Queen Atlanna. My favorite scene in the movie not involving sea monsters is the very end when Tom Curry walks to the end of his pier as he has for 20 years and finally finds the ageless Atlanna waiting for him. "You're back! And you're still hot!" (Tom doesn't say that, but we were all thinking it).

Friday, December 14, 2018

Mary Queen of Scots

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

** SPOILERS **

The trailers and advertisements for director Josie Rourke's Mary Queen of Scots paint this period drama as a clash of wills between Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie), and this is accurate but only up to a point. The true enemy of Mary isn't Elizabeth but Scotland itself, specifically the vile Protestant men in court scheming against the Catholic queen. It's actually quite strange to see the Scots as the bad guys; after Braveheart, Outlaw King, and even Trainspotting, it's become cliche to see the Scottish as scrappy underdogs worth cheering for. But the men surrounding Mary Stuart are all heartless assholes who resented being ruled by a woman and they conspired to take her down.

Set between the years 1561 when Mary returned to Scotland after living most of her life in France, reigning briefly as Queen of France, to 1578 when she loses her head thanks to an executioner's axe, Mary Queen of Scots presents the titular monarch's life as one of regal poise and progressive ideas pitted against the constant, sneering disapproval of the men of her court. This includes her bastard half-brother James, Earl of Moray and Regent of Scotland (James McArdle) and the two men who would become Mary's husbands, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston). There's also John Knox (an unrecognizable David Tennant), a Protestant reformer who absolutely hates Mary Stuart's guts and constantly preached shit like "it is more than a monster in nature that a Woman shall reign and have empire above Man.” (Knox just hated ladies in general, it seems.) 

Mary's inner circle of handmaidens protected her as best they could, but her secretary David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) paid a high price for the crime of "being one of the girls", i.e. being gay. According to Mary Queen of Scots, the Queen's power hungry husband Lord Darnley was also gay (something Mary didn't realize when he seduced her by performing oral sex on her but then declined her reciprocating) and slept with Rizzio on her wedding night. Later, Darnley joins in a coup that saw a bunch of Scots storm into Mary's chambers and murder Rizzio Julius Caesar-style, effectively placing Mary under house arrest until she raised an army and regained control of the kingdom, granting pardons to the traitors. And this was after she had already defeated her English-supported half-brother James' attempt at a coup. After forgiving James and taking him back into her heart, even making James protector of her son, the future King James I of England and Scotland whom she named after him, her half-brother pulls off another coup attempt, sending Mary into exile in England.

While she was surrounded by a nest of vipers in Scotland, the film's juiciest conflict is between Mary and Elizabeth. The tall, youthful, and beautiful Mary is contrasted by an envious Elizabeth, the husband-less, child-less Virgin Queen who is scarred by smallpox (the film works overtime with makeup and prosthetic nose to try to disguise Robbie's movie star beauty, to moderate effect). Mary's royal bloodline gave her claim to England's throne - possibly a stronger claim than Elizabeth's - but the two Queens mostly communicated by exchanging civil and flattering letters and through envoys. The tension between them centered on the matter of succession; Mary wanted Elizabeth to declare her the presumptive heir to the English crown, while Elizabeth wished for Mary to wed her consort Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn). Neither queen acquiesed the other, but when Mary named Elizabeth James' godmother, the Queen of England agreed to name James her successor. 

Once Mary flees Scotland for sanctuary in England, Mary Queen of Scots delivers the scene it built the entire movie towards: a (fictional) face-to-face confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth where Mary pleaded for Elizabeth to help her regain her throne and then insulted the Queen of England when she refused. As the monarchs, Ronan is remarkable; she's a beautiful, proud, charming, and at times ferocious Mary Stuart (whom the movie doesn't see fit to age despite 17 years of time passing in the film). Despite her top billing, Robbie really only plays a supporting role as Elizabeth and she works hard to convey the multitude of passions Elizabeth hid beneath her Gloriana facade. 

The climactic confrontation between Mary and Elizabeth is like a historical costume drama version of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro's diner scene in Heat but, like Mary Queen of Scots overall, it doesn't quite deliver all of the goods, despite the electric and emotional performances by Ronan and Robbie. However, like in Heat, after the face-to-face, the movie ends with one of them dead and the other regretting it because they kind of liked the person they had to kill. But what can you do? That's the job of being a cop Queen.


Sunday, December 9, 2018

Bumblebee

BUMBLEBEE

** SPOILERS **

Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) loves her car and that's the beating heart of Travis Knight's Bumblebee, the best live-action Transformers movie and the first to contain depth, sincerity, and is a palpable joy to watch. Like its titular Autobot, Bumblebee is smaller in scale than the other Transformers movies but is also more detailed and heartfelt. And (this is important), unlike Michael Bay's five previous clanking, chaotic cacophonies, watching Bumblebee doesn't feel like you're being punished by being repeatedly smacked in the face with a bag of hammers while rusty nails poke at your eye sockets. It only took 11 years and 6 Transformers movies to get this franchise to roll out in a positive direction, but let's never, ever go back.

Bumblebee succeeds in part by going back; it's a retro-1980s film (the era which was the heyday of Transformers Generation-1) and it's a reboot of Michael Bay's films (sort of). Borrowing heavily from E.T. and The Iron Giant - with reverential nods to and the pacing of a Spielberg, Zemeckis, and Joe Johnston film sprinkled with some John Hughes - Bumblebee is drenched in nostalgia for a simpler time. The film may be a bit too aggressively '80s, especially with its wall-to-wall soundtrack, but the songs are well-chosen ("You're listening to The Smiths!"), and there's a clever in-joke where it turns out we owe the Decepticons for the gift of the Internet.

This 6th Transformers movie also blows up the continuity of the previous 5 (though, to be fair, nearly every Michael Bay sequel rewrote the history of his previous films). The movie opens on Cybertron (looking just like a kid in the '80s dreamed it would look like and not like what Bay presented) where the Decepticons have conquered the planet (without Megatron, who is never mentioned). Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) orders an evacuation and sends his favorite soldier B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) to Earth, a sanctuary he must protect until the rest of the Autobot Resistance can join him. Naturally, the Decepticons follow B to Earth, where they meet Sector-7 Agent Burns (John Cena, who is simply great in this role), a true-blue soldier who doesn't trust robot aliens and has a score to settle with them. However, Sector-7 is seduced by the technology and weaponry the Decepticons offer. Believing the evil robots' lies, the humans decide to work with them to find the "criminal" B-127, despite Burns accurately pointing out the name "Decepticons" should raise a red flag.

Meanwhile, the real story of Bumblebee begins when the damaged Autobot (missing his vocal software) meets Charlie, an 18-year-old girl mourning her dead father and desperately seeking a friend she can confide in. Not unlike John Connor in Terminator 2 finding his father figure in a T-800, Charlie finds her friend in a beat-up yellow Volkswagen Beetle that immediately transforms into a giant robot. Childlike and frightened thanks to his malfunctioning memory core, Bee is endearingly vulnerable and Charlie falls for her car right away. She names him "Bumblebee" and it's Charlie who inspires Bee to learn to use the radio to "talk", a trick he would use to communicate in all of Bay's films set 20+ years in the future (which may or may not happen now).

The bulk of Bumblebee is Charlie getting to know Bee, repairing him, and teaching him to assimilate on Earth while warning him that humans will try to dismantle and destroy him. There's a sequence where Bumblebee enters Charlie's house to explore it and accidentally wrecks everything and then a second where a failed attempt at toilet papering a mean girl's house sees Bee demolish her car that feels like a level up from when the Autobots were 'hiding' in the backyard of Sam Witwicky's house in Bay's 2007 Transformers. But the chemistry between Charlie and Bumblebee is palpable, made all the more remarkable by how immensely talented Hailee Steinfeld is; considering she's acting opposite CGI or a prop or nothing at all, Steinfeld makes you believe Bee is real. The movie adds a helpful third wheel in Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), the boy next door who would very much like to date Charlie, and the three have fun adventures driving around the Northern California coast, with Bumblebee playing Stan Bush's "The Touch" from Transformers: The Movie on the radio to really work the feels for the 80's kids in the audience.

Inevitably, the war between the Autobots and Decepticons comes to Earth and, like E.T., Bumblebee is captured and tortured before Charlie and Memo can save him. Once he's rebooted, Bumblebee remembers he's really, really good at killing Decepticons, and his battles against Triple-Changers Blitzwing (David Sobolov), Shatter (Angela Bassett), and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) are exciting because the Generation-1 designs allow you to see them as robots and not just a collection of shards and gears, therefore, you can tell what's going on when they move and fight. Together, Charlie and Bumblebee save the world, while Agent Burns comes to understand the yellow Volkswagen is on our side. 

In the end, Charlie chooses to part with Bumblebee in a climax as emotionally touching as it is baffling. The film establishes how Bumblebee changes shape into a Camaro (to Charlie's chagrin), which seems to set up how he'll meet Shia LaBeouf in Bernie Mac's used car lot 20 years later - yet the continuity has been completely altered because Optimus Prime and the Autobots immediately join Bumblebee on Earth in 1987 when Transformers establishes they don't arrive until 2007. Regardless, while it's clunky in sections and seems made up of spare parts from previous 1980s classics, Bumblebee is a win for everyone involved and for the entire Transformers franchise, which now has an open road to make better movies like this going forward (hopefully with Steinfeld returning). 

The best thing about Transformers 2007 was the heart of it was a story about a boy and his car, but Bumblebee tops it with its 1987 story of a girl and her car - the film truly understands and reaffirms the mystical bond between woman and machine. Bumblebee is really the first Transformers movie aimed at girls, and dads, bring your daughters to see it. They may come out of Bumblebee wanting a car, but they'll also learn to love their car.


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