Bumblebee Movie Review

Steven Spielberg has executive produced all five Transformers movies prior to Bumblebee and he holds that title here. Yet it’s in this prequel/spin-off that his influence feels the most pronounced. In the case of this franchise, that’s a welcome development. Michael Bay’s quintet of loud metal on metal action orgies that began in 2007 are generally nonsensical explosion excuses with occasional jaw dropping moments. Travis Knight, taking over directorial duties, gives Bumblebee a heart and the loudest audio belongs to the terrific 80s soundtrack.

This is a prequel and the happenings occur in 1987, which explains The Smiths, Duran Duran, and Tears for Fears providing the tunes. A prologue on the planet Cybertron shows our title character (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) being sent to Earth by Optimus Prime in order to escape death by The Decepticons. He crash lands, of all places, right in the middle of a military training exercise in California where no nonsense Colonel Jack Burns (John Cena) assumes him to be a hostile creature. Bumblebee manages to transform into that iconic 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, but not after being rendered mute when his voice box is disabled. By the way, this all happens in like ten minutes. Pacing is not an issue in this picture, unlike other bloated Transformers flicks.

That Beetle ends up in a junkyard frequented by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a gear head who’s just turned 18. It’s her storyline that brings the Spielberg vibes front and center. She’s experienced parental loss as her beloved father has passed. She’s an outcast in the suburbs. Charlie has an awkward pending romance with her neighbor (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). There’s also a resistance to diving (even though she’s a terrific diver) that we correctly assume will figure into the plot. She also works at a low rent amusement park that looks straight outta Adventureland. When she commandeers the Volkswagen, she discovers the giant yellow extraterrestrial and befriends him. Their relationship is quite E.T. like, if that alien had tires strapped to his back and communicated through radio waves playing Steve Winwood.

Knight, maker of the acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings, is making a Transformers experience that could have been made in the 80s. And it mostly works. There’s only so much he can do with the fight scenes after the Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) track Bumblebee to this planet. The tech team here manages to make them easier to follow than Bay’s mashups. So when Colonel Burns and other dumber than they should be government types get involved in the plot, I found myself actually caring a bit. That’s due to screenwriter Christina Hodson’s establishment of Charlie as a full fledged character and Steinfeld’s work elevating her. Her charming interaction with Bee is enough to warrant something the Transformers epics don’t get and that’s a recommendation.

*** (out of four)

Avengers: Endgame Movie Review

**There’s really no way to write a review of Avengers: Endgame without some minor spoilers. You may wish to read this post viewing…

The word “epic” can be overused by those who review movies like me, but it unquestionably applies to Avengers: Endgame. It’s epic in its running time (none of the other 21 MCU pics run three hours) and epic in the number of well-known thespians reprising their superhero and villain characters. It doesn’t seem feasible that so many characters could manage to coexist in this vast universe without seeming like a gimmick. If you happen to think predecessor Infinity War was overcrowded, you’ll get whiplash here. Truth be told, there are moments when this borders on playing like a greatest hits reel based on what’s preceded it during the last eleven years.

Yet Endgame figures out a rewarding way to stick the landing and honor the dozens of faces that we’ve spent billions of dollars visiting since 2008. At the conclusion of Infinity War, bad guy Thanos (Josh Brolin) had collected his precious Infinity Stones and decimated half the intergalactic population into dramatic looking dust particles. What’s left is mostly the core of the OG Avengers – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). There’s others as Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) is the sole surviving Guardian of the Galaxy. And we have the two notable characters that were MIA last summer – Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd).

One might think this whole saga might be about the original band and some newer friends taking on Thanos. You would be wrong. Endgame has plenty of time bending tricks up its endless story arch sleeves. The first is an unexpected resolution that comes very early. However, that climax is just a set-up to further complications.

This is indeed a time travel movie in which the screenwriters almost sheepishly concede the contrived nature of such a device. The survivors set upon a course of multiple back in time ways to retrieve the Stones and bring back their loved ones. It doesn’t happen overnight and the lengthy nature of the plan coming together provides funny and poignant moments. Tony is off the grid with his beloved Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a new addition. Bruce is in full Hulk mode, but kindler and gentler. Thor is rounder and drunkenly grappling with his losses. Hawkeye is a full-blown vigilante. When the gang revs up their figurative DeLoreans, it gives us a chance to revisit lots of MCU personnel. And it’s a LOT of former players. Some are genuinely surprising. During this lengthy stretch, the film walks a fine line of not devolving into nostalgic sugar shock amidst the action sequences. By the final act, it rises above it.

We know the battle scenes will be well choreographed and well-directed (with the Russo Brothers handling duties once again). The final one is rather jaw dropping with the mixing of so many known quantities. Thanos is one of the stronger villains in MCU history and he remains so here, though there’s nothing fresh to add about his character. His daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan), on the other hand, continues her evolution as a fine addition to the roster.

The comic relief comes more from Thor as opposed to Ant-Man or Rocket and Hemsworth is up to the task. Captain America and Black Widow are given their emotional moments that we’re invested in from their backstories. To this writer, it’s Tony who’s always been the damaged beating heart of this franchise. The Marvel Cinematic Universe simply wouldn’t exist as it is without Downey Jr.’s brilliant work. That’s never changed. The quality of the movies he’s appeared in has. His performance has always been fantastic. If we’re ranking, I would put Endgame as an overall experience just under the first Avengers in 2012 and Infinity War. I can’t promise that thinking about all the shifting time plot points might raise as many questions as answers. I won’t deny that its emotional payoff is real and we have Downey and an amazing group of technicians bringing these comics to life to thank for it.

***1/2 (out of four)

Glass Movie Review

If nothing else, M. Night Shyamalan is audacious and I have always admired that. He likes to swing away at the cinematic fences and in Glass, he melds two of his pictures into a new universe. It’s ultimately not a very satisfying one, but the guy tries hard.

At the end of 2017’s Split, which returned the filmmaker to box office prominence, it was revealed that what we watched existed in the same realm of 2000’s Unbreakable. It did so by bringing in David Dunn (Bruce Willis). As you may recall, Dunn was the lone survivor of a train derailment who came to realize he was impervious to pain. Comic book store owner Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), suffering from a disease that cause his bones to break easily, surmised that David was a superhero. And Elijah was the arch nemesis as the 2000 flick revealed he was the evil mastermind behind the train going off the track.

In Split, we were introduced to James McAvoy’s Kevin and almost two dozen other characters that lived inside his head while he tormented teen girls that he kidnapped. From an annoying nine-year old boy to a OCD monster to a proper British dame, his personalities culminated with The Beast, who also possessed super human strength. The surprise ending suggested David will battle The Beast and low and behold – Split made more than enough money for that to occur.

This brings us to Glass. The first act allows this trio of characters to end up in the same mental institution with a psychiatrist (Sarah Paulson) attempting to dissuade them of their perceived powers. Dunn is sensitive to the possibility. The many voices of Kevin has his moments of doubt. Elijah, aka Mr. Glass, is so doped up that we’re not sure he knows what’s going on. However, fans of Unbreakable know the dude is a mastermind.

Glass brings back other characters from its double source material. Charlayne Woodard returns as Elijah’s supportive to a troubling degree mother. Spencer Treat Clark is back as David’s now grown son (Robin Wright skipped out as his wife). And Anya-Taylor Joy reprises her Split role as Kevin’s surviving kidnap victim. Her story arch here is easily the most inexplicable one in a movie filled with often strange choices.

My feelings with Unbreakable and Split are a bit against the grain from many others. I actually dug the former 19 years ago while many found out it to be a disappointing follow-up to The Sixth Sense. As for the latter, I enjoyed McAvoy’s bonkers performance greatly but found it as a whole to be a mixed bag. The melding of the two worlds also fits that description. It’s got everything we expect from Shyamalan, including a twist ending or two. This time around, they land with less impact than earlier efforts.

McAvoy is still impressive, but we’ve seen this show before. Unbreakable set itself up perfectly for a world building sequel. Quite frankly, Glass made me realize I wish it hadn’t taken Split for us to get it. More of the Dunn/Elijah dynamic could have been rewarding without these other personalities in the way. Shyamalan’s personality shines through as always as he tries to overwhelm us with style and suspense. Like Split, the result is some memorable sequences amid numerous questionable ones and not the more cohesive whole that I found Unbreakable to be.

**1/2 (out of four)

Green Book Movie Review

Green Book does represent Driving Miss Daisy in reverse with its story. Like that 1989 film, it also has a Best Picture Oscar and an unexpected one at that. This isn’t in the top-tier of movies to receive that honor, but it is an often effective and very well-acted tale of an unlikely friendship.

Viggo Mortensen is Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a bouncer at the famed Copacabana in New York City circa 1962. The club is closing for renovations over the holidays. Hungry for work (and literally hungry all the time), he accepts a job as chauffeur for notable concert pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Doctor Shirley lives above another Big Apple landmark – Carnegie Hall.

This union of an unrefined Italian-American and erudite African-American brings them to the Deep South. The era often puts the boss in Colored Only hotels and the employee in nicer ones. The title refers to an actual book which instructed black travelers where they could stay.

Tony and Shirley are real life figures as well. As portrayed by Mortensen and Ali, the actors form a genuine chemistry. The eight week tour is scheduled to end just before Christmas and Tony is determined to make it home for the holiday with his wife (Linda Cardellini) and large brood. Shirley is a loner with loose connections to family. In this sense, the plot actually resembles Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – albeit with less comedic overtones.

Green Book is directed by Peter Farrelly, who’s only known for material meant to make you laugh (Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary are the best of them). There are light moments, especially in the first half. The screenplay grows gradually more serious as the duo’s trek takes them to Alabama for the finale and the racist traditions become more pronounced.

This picture doesn’t break any new ground with its subject matter. It’s more of an amiable concentration on this alliance with two fine performers playing them. Those looking for something more weighty might be disappointed, but I felt the leads cause this to be a ride worth taking.

*** (out of four)

Aquaman Movie Review

In movies nowadays, the superhero genre has become so popular that a rule now applies to well-known thespians. You can play a hero or then you act long enough to see yourself become the villain. Or vice versa. Patrick Wilson was a good guy in Watchmen and now he’s a bad guy in Aquaman. Willem Dafoe was the key villain in SpiderMan, but he’s an ally to the title character here. As for Nicole Kidman, she was Bruce Wayne’s love interest in Batman Forever. Now she’s Aquamom.

This is all in a feature-length experience that HBO’s “Entourage” treated with humor. The thought back then… who would really buy this comic book creation in his own two-hour saga? Director James Wan’s weird but often endearing take ups the ante by padding nearly an extra half hour. It sorta works. It does by knowing that it’s silly most of the time despite occasional meanderings into thinking it belongs in Lord of the Rings territory. While it doesn’t, some of the battle scenes approach that grandeur.

We’ve seen Aquaman before in the DC Extended Universe. He was introduced briefly in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (which I still think is a little better than its reputation) and his role was expanded in the sub par Justice League. He gets the whole origin treatment here. In 1985, the Queen of Atlantis names Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washes up on shore after a storm in Maine. She makes the acquaintance of the local lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and Splash style romantic sparks fly. Leaving her King hubby behind underwater, Atlanna and her new flame bear a son named Arthur and that little tyke eventually becomes the heavily tattooed punk rockish muscle man embodied by Jason Momoa.

As we witnessed in the previously mentioned pics, Momoa’s Aquaman becomes a mysterious superhero above water when not chugging beers with Dad. Atlanna, on the other hand, is long gone after being hunted down by her husband’s henchmen and returning below the surface so her new family isn’t harmed. She’s said to be dead.

Soon enough, Arthur is pressured to see Atlantis for the first time. His half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is hell-bent on becoming the ruling Ocean Master. That means the destruction of Earth is on his to do list. Mera (Amber Heard) is the daughter of an Atlantean  King (Dolph Lundgren) allied with Orm. She disagrees with her father and along with Arthur’s old mentor (Willem Dafoe), they attempt to recruit our hero to become the King himself.

The family drama is a very familiar plot point in most movies in the genre – no matter which cinematic universe it takes place in. This is no exception. Orm is the Loki to Aquaman’s Thor, but he’s not near as memorable. Mera is the love interest and she has some humorous moments due to her unfamiliarity with our land. Those light moments reminded me of Gal Gadot’s acclamations to her fresh surroundings in Wonder Woman. And while we’re talking similar plot themes, this will remind you of Black Panther from time to time.

There’s only so much you can accomplish with this well-worn origin stuff, but James Wan conjures up a visually vibrant tale with an engaging lead. Momoa’s Aquaman is a bit of a Hulk like creation who seems impervious to harm. Frankly, the tension is a bit watered down because it seems like he could swat Orm off like a fly. Yet the action sequences are effective when they’re not too weighed down in confusing CG mayhem. The best one takes place in Italy when all the players remain dry. Aquaman is worth the watch, despite its flaws, as it builds plenty of worlds we’ll see again and with more details. This uses what seems like a record of title cards to tell us where we are as the plot moves along. Unlike other films where we might see “St. Louis” with The Arch in frame, they’re necessary here. Most of the places we visit come with acceptable levels of entertainment value.

*** (out of four)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Movie Review

In the 21st century cinematic universe, the famed web slinger has been reinvented on a number of occasions – from Tobey Maguire to Andrew Garfield to Tom Holland. SpiderMan: Into the SpiderVerse is the first one that feels truly inventive. Anyone thinking this animated experience would be a sub par spin-off or money grab will find themselves sorely mistaken. This iteration of the iconic hero has a lot of heart, plenty of action, and a warped sense of humor that elicits genuine laughs. Directors Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (who co-wrote the screenplay along with Phil Lord) have drawn up what is probably the most satisfying Spidey pic on its own terms.

The picture posits the theory that our title character does his Spidey thing in multiple dimensions and in different forms than just Peter Parker. These characters are familiar to fans of the Marvel Comics and even includes Spider-Ham, representing the hero in pig form. He’s here and he’s fabulous. Our primary Spidey here is Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teen with a police officer father and a potentially shady uncle that he admires. Miles attends a prep school and feels lost in his adolescence just like Peter Parker did. He’s a fan of Spider-Man, who is currently fighting Big Apple crime in the manner we’re accustomed to. That’s until bad guy Kingpin (Liev Schrieber) knocks him off, but not before Miles get a radioactive bite that gives him the well-known powers.

What follows is a visually splendid adventure where it’s clear that the makers really adore the character. At the same time, they take him in unforeseen directions that perhaps only the animated format could allow. Miles’s Spidey teams with an aging and out of shape Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) from a different “verse”, along with Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) and the aforementioned Ham version. There’s others, but part of the fun is watching them appear without me spoiling it.

Plenty of superhero movies take themselves quite seriously and many have succeeded with that tone. Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool introduced a different dynamic that is evident here. Yet SpiderVerse is not derivative. It manages to take one of the most repeated story arcs in the genre and cleverly turn it on its head. I enjoyed it immensely. The possibilities are many for this particular universe to continue and I’m up for it.

***1/2 (out of four)

Captain Marvel Movie Review

By the time the strains of “Just a Girl” blare over the speakers during a climactic fight scene, there is no doubt that Captain Marvel has adequately placed itself as a bridge between Avengers epics. That’s not an especially high bar in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it answers the most important question needed before April’s Avengers: Endgame – who’s this new heroine that’s going to help the team we’re accustomed to seeing?

That would be Brie Larson as Vers. She’s part of the Kree alien race with persistent flashbacks to an old life on C53, a planet otherwise known as Earth. Her mentor is Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who helps her hone her mysterious superpowers. The flashback mentor is Mar-Vell (get it?) and she takes the form of Annette Bening as an all-knowing being who may have taught Vers in a previous life that’s fuzzy to her.

Since this is the MCU, we correctly suspect that purported good guys may become bad guys and vice versa. Vers and her team are battling another race called the Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn, always solid). They can take the form of any being they wish, so we see Mr. Mendelsohn in his bespectacled British form and in impeccable creature makeup.

Vers’s interactions with the Skrulls involves a crash landing in Los Angeles. Not today’s L.A., mind you, but 1995 L.A. where relics of the past like Blockbuster Video and two-way pagers exist. This time frame is mined for humor and its soundtrack that includes Nirvana and Salt n Pepa. We also meet Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in his pre eyepatch days and a rookie Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg).

The Earth bound action gets us to a place where we can call Vers the Captain now. And clad in her Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, it get us one step closer to her joining Captain America, Tony Stark, and others decades later.

Captain Marvel is yet another origin story and it follows the tried and true MCU blueprint. Luckily for us, that familiar path includes picking directors (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) that are unconventional choices (they’re known for indie dramas like Half Nelson). It includes humorous touches that work and plenty of them come in the feline form of Goose, who steals some sequences.

Have there been stronger intros in this franchise before? Absolutely. As the first female MCU hero with a stand-alone tale, Larson is spirited. Is her back story as inspiring as what the DCU provided in Wonder Woman? I’d have to say no. And like many MCU pics before it, the villains here are standard – even with fine actors playing them. We will see if Larson’s character can become a fan favorite in this vast world. I’d say the jury is currently unsure. At the conclusion of Avengers: Infinity War, we learned she was needed. Captain Marvel provides some decently entertaining history as to why.

*** (out of four)