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

‘I Love You, Daddy’ Was Already Creepy Before the Louis C.K. Allegations Broke. Now It’s Totally Inexplicable

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CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot

This essay was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

After multiple women came forward with stories of sexual misconduct perpetrated against them by Louis C.K., The Orchard pulled his film I Love You, Daddy (written, directed by, and starring C.K.) from its release schedule, just a week before it was set to come out. Considering the nature of the accusations, C.K. confessing to their truth, and the subject matter of the film, there was really no other choice for The Orchard to make, despite having paid $5 million for the distribution rights. Whenever entertainers get caught up in scandal, the viability of their projects is called into question, both financially and ethically. In this case, that is especially true, as I Love You, Daddy is astoundingly reflective of C.K.’s own experiences.

I Love You, Daddy will likely never see the light of a full theatrical release, but it was screening for press up until just a few days before it was pulled from the schedule. It offers plenty that is worth discussing, but I cannot imagine it is something that any potential viewer could ever unabashedly enjoy, even if C.K. had never masturbated in front of women without their consent. The premise reads like the worst possible idea that can be conceived in light of this story coming out. C.K. plays Glen Topher, a TV writer/producer (he’s pretty much basically playing himself) who tries to prevent his 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace-Moretz) from dating 68-year-old filmmaker Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), who is infamous for his predilection for younger women and has been dogged for years by rumors of sexual abuse.

Did C.K. mean for I Love You, Daddy to be some sort of elaborate confession/apology? (At one point, Glen literally says, “I’m sorry, women.”) Or is he just baiting us, as The Huffington Post’s Matthew Jacobs suggests, into thinking it is something more substantial than it actually is? I can only speculate at his motivation. Perhaps he will speak to that publicly at some point. I often make a point when discussing controversial films to emphasize that portrayal does not equal endorsement, but in this case, that maxim falls short. I can describe for you the specific events that happen in I Love You, Daddy (like one character aggressively miming masturbation in front of others), but I am struggling to figure out what message, if any, it is portraying or endorsing. But considering the subject matter and the real-life context, that ambiguity cannot be defended.

Even if C.K. were not guilty of sexual misconduct, I Love You, Daddy would still be a dicey proposition. Leslie is clearly a stand-in for Woody Allen, who started his relationship with his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, when she was still a teenager and he was in his fifties and who has been accused of sexual abuse by his own children. The film is also a clear homage to Allen’s Manhattan, in which he plays a 42-year-old dating a 17-year-old. Let’s suppose a hypothetical in which Allen and C.K. are both free of controversy, rendering Glen and Leslie both wholly fictional creations. Even in that case, I Love You, Daddy is still creepy and misguided. In its best possible version, it could have seriously grappled with whether or not human beings’ most socially unacceptable urges can ever be morally defended. But that would require a delicate touch that this film simply does not have.