This Is a Movie Review: ‘Bumblebee’ is Retro Fun and Mercifully Economical

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena, Pamela Adlon, John Ortiz, Stephen Schneider, Jason Drucker, Dylan O’Brien, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Peter Cullen

Director: Travis Knight

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Deadly Alien Technology That Vaporizes Blood and Guts

Release Date: December 21, 2018

The Transformers series is addicted to origin stories and secret histories. Bumblebee does not break that spell, but it does present it in a much more palatable package than usual. The 2007 franchise starter supposedly presented the first time that the Autobots and Decepticons made themselves known on Earth in a major way. But as the series has rattled on, it’s been revealed that the bots have actually been around on this planet in some capacity for thousands of years, which sounds exhausting to hear about, and is even more exhausting to watch. I checked out after 2011’s Dark of the Moon, but I’ve heard horror stories from folks who stuck around for 2014’s Age of Extinction and 2017’s The Last Knight.

The spinoff nature of Bumblebee offers the potential to go in a fresh direction, but its elevator pitch does not exactly inspire confidence. “What if a teenager finds a beat-up old car that turns out to be a Transformer?” is pretty much the exact same starting point as the first Transformers. But while the setup is familiar, the details are unique and mercifully leaner compared to what’s come before. Wisely, only four Transformers play significant roles. There’s the title little fellow, opting for a modest Volkswagen Beetle disguise instead of his typical Camaro look. On his tail are the Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick, voiced with nasty verve by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux. And Optimus Prime shows up occasionally to keep Bumblebee’s spirits up, mostly in Princess Leia-to-Obi-Wan Kenobi-style pre-recorded message form. Metal clanking against metal is still no more aesthetically pleasing than it’s ever been, but there’s thankfully a lot less of it this time around.

As for the humans, Hailee Steinfeld is a natural in coming-of-age mode. She plays Charlie Watson, a teenager in 1987 San Francisco who would much rather spend her time fixing up cars (like she used to always do with her dad before he passed away) rather than hang out with her family or classmates. There are plenty of hallmarks of the genre: an awkward neighbor with a huge crush (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), an overbearing mom and stepdad (the delightful pair of Pamela Adlon and Stephen Schneider) who try and fail to get Charlie to smile more often, an annoying younger brother, and bitchy classmates. Bumblebee slots into her universe as a sort of wounded animal that she nurses back to health and also as the only one who really understands Charlie. Bumblebee hardly reinvents the wheel, but it’s a perfectly fun and satisfying addition to the girl-and-her-bot genre.

Bumblebee is Recommended If You Like: The first Transformers movie but not the Michael Bay excess, The Smiths, ’80s-set coming-of-age flicks

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Volkswagen Bugs

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Weaves 50-Plus Years of Superhero History Into One Neat Little Package

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Entertainment

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Liev Schreiber, Bryan Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage, Kimiko Glenn, John Mulaney, Kathryn Hahn, Chris Pine, Zoë Kravitz

Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: PG for Superhero Bumps and Bruises and Dimension-Altering Explosions

Release Date: December 14, 2018

Even if you prefer Tom Holland or Andrew Garfield’s versions of Peter Parker, it is fundamentally outrageous that the cinematic Spider-Man has been rebooted multiple times so soon after the massively successful Tobey Maguire chapters. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse avoids this pitfall by forgoing the same old Peter Parker origin story, or even the same old Peter Parker himself. Instead, the focus this time is on Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Puerto Rican and African-American teenager who inherits the Spider-Man mantle after he too is bitten by a radioactive arachnid. Additionally, while Miles is the primary protagonist, room is also made for just about every parallel universe version of Spider-Man that has ever existed in the comics (including noir, manga, and porcine iterations). I would love it if the live-action Marvel action movies were similarly diverse, but there is more space to be bold within animation (at least according to how the blockbuster industry currently operates).

A running gag throughout Spider-Verse is each version of Spider-Man giving us the rundown on his (or her) origin story. The film assumes that the audience is significantly familiar with the web-crawler’s mythos, and thus we get shout-outs to iconic moments from both the panel and the screen, like the murdered uncle and the upside-down kiss in the rain. These moments could play as cheap nostalgia, but instead they are far from it because there is so much visual information to digest. The effect is more one of self-awareness and reinterpretation.

Spider-Verse follows in a line of recent animated franchise films like The Lego Movie and Teen Titans Go! To the Movies that benefit from their deep wealth of knowledge about their own histories. They all comment on their own pasts, avoiding snark in the name of favoring celebration while also managing to craft new adventures that stand on their own. Spider-Verse takes its unique place as one of the most visually vibrant entries in the history of CG-animated cinema, with a cornucopia of expressive and energetic styles. Add to that a sterling voice cast, and this is one of the witties (vocally and visually), and just plain most satisfying, experiences you’ll have in all of 2018.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is Recommended If You Like: Every Spider-Man Comic Ever, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, The Lego Movie

Grade: 4 out of 5 Alternate Dimensions

 

This Is a Movie Review: The Edge of Seventeen

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This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2016.

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick

Director: Kelly Fremon Craig

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: R, But It Should Really Be PG-13 Because We Should Be More Comfortable with the Fact That Teens Are Sexual Creatures

Release Date: November 18, 2016

Some of the most memorable moments of The Edge of Seventeen remind me of RuPaul’s Drag Race, specifically the reality show’s “Reading is Fundamental” segments (which were in turn inspired by the drag ball documentary Paris Is Burning). “Reading” is basically insult comedy, with everyone in the room taking turns as insulter and insulted – so, you know, a roast, but the drag queen version, i.e., bitchier and wittier. But there is also a sense of perfecting one’s craft and being there to support each other. Much of Edge of Seventeen’s dialogue has this acidic streak, even though every character is fundamentally on one another’s side. Woody Harrelson at one point informs our heroine Hailee Steinfeld, “Maybe nobody likes you” – despite being her closest confidante and that line being part of a pep talk to raise her spirits.

Everything starts falling apart right from the start when high school junior Nadine (Steinfeld) discovers her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) hooking up with her brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Nadine declares that Krista must choose between her and Darian; Krista refuses to play along, but Nadine is so stubborn and thus she suddenly finds herself friendless. It is hard for me to relate to this type of conflict, because if one of my siblings started dating one of my best friends, I would be thrilled! They might officially become part of my family! (That specific argument is actually made to Nadine.)

However, I do realize that not all brothers and sisters get along that well. But what is maddening is that as much Nadine frustrates Darian, he clearly wants a good relationship with her. The source of this friction is possibly the death of their father five years earlier. It is implied that Nadine feels alienated from her brother and her exhausted mother (Kyra Sedgwick) because of their different methods for handling grief. She also may be suffering from depression or anxiety, which does not make her self-centeredness any less maddening, but at least it makes more understandable.

I am a little torn about how to assess Edge of Seventeen. Nadine is a supremely frustrating character, constantly making hurtful decisions when she intellectually must know better. But she is also easy to fall for. Part of that is because she is played by the guileless but fierce Steinfeld. A bigger part is the fact that when she actually does realize there are other people who have experienced pain she like has, she becomes a fun person to open up to. I may have to catch a few re-watches at home over the next several years to cement this as a classic, but for now it at least undoubtedly has my attention.

The Edge of Seventeen is Recommended If You LikeCluelessSilver Linings Playbook, Teenagers Played by Actual Teenagers and One Token 30-Year-Old

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Accidental Sexts