Bumblebee

Bumblebee

By: Kevin Jordan

Are we sure this is a Transformers movie?

As Bumblebee unfolded before our eyes, I had to keep asking myself if my son and I were really watching a Transformers movie.  There were no racist versions of transformers.  The movie was not exploding every twelve seconds.  There were no robots or dogs trying to hump people or other dogs.  There were no baby dinosaur transformers.  There were no gratuitous (read: creepy) shots of scantily clad, sweaty, teenaged girls.  At no time did a transformer ride a dinosaur transformer.  Did Michael Bay die and nobody noticed?

To the chagrin of many a film critic (present company excluded), Bay is alive and well and still making movies.  But, for the first time in the Transformers franchise, Michael Bay did not direct.  Bumblebee was directed by Travis Knight, though Bay was still heavily involved as a producer (and it shows at times).  It does not take long to notice that Bumblebee feels very different from the other five films in the franchise.

You do not have to be sad any more. We found a new director.

(SPOILERS, but – and I cannot believe I am saying this – very minor because Bumblebee does not deserve to be spoiled).

Bumblebee is a prequel to the first Transformers, set twenty years prior in 1987.  The film kicks off with the war on Cybertron between the Autobots and Decepticons.  A Cybertron movie is the movie I really want to see, but like Man of Steel, this movie is too stubborn to give us the destruction of an alien planet.  As the war nears its end, Optimus Prime sends Bumblebee to Earth to establish a secret base for the Autobots.  His exact instructions were “protect Earth from the Decepticons.  If they find it, the war will truly be lost.”  Ohhhhh, there you are Mr. Bay.  So, Optimus is sending his smallest soldier (a scout) to protect a random planet that is so important he does not send any of his other remaining soldiers (instead, shooting them off in seemingly random directions).  Fine.  Fuck.  Whatever.  Go sit back down in the corner, Michael.

Obviously, it does not take long for the Decepticons to find Bumblebee, they attack him, and leave him for dead.  Some years later (1987), eighteen year-old Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) discovers a beat-up, yellow Volkswagen beetle in a junkyard, gets it running, then takes it home (as a gift from her uncle).  As seen in the trailers, while looking under the undercarriage, she sees a face, the face lights up, Bumblebee transforms into his robot self and the two become fast friends.  Charlie also accidentally turns on a beacon that the Decepticons pick up and the film’s main plot – chase Bumblebee to find out Optimus’ plans and whereabouts – takes off.  No mystical pyramid-machine keys, no magical cubes, no space-portals used to transport an entire planet to eat another planet.  There is a nearly 100% chance Michael Bay was duct-taped to his producer’s chair during writing and filming.

Chase me. Just chase me.

What I really liked about Bumblebee is something I have been saying for years – keep it small.  The entire world or universe does not have to be at stake (even though Optimus says it is).  Really, the thing at stake is Bumblebee, and to a lesser extent, the remnants of the Autobot rebels.  The movie also features just three transformers for the vast majority of the film.  Bumblebee and the two Decepticons hunting him, Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett).  Yes, that is a female transformer that is not a god-like floating witch with tentacles.  I know it is strange to think, but many women do actually like transforming robots (toys and movie characters) and have more to offer a film than just dewy skin.

On the flip side, the film has a couple of glaring weaknesses.  One is the inclusion of a cartoonish element that feels far too infantile, even for a movie based on toys.  This element rears its head in the form of humans exploding like bags of mucus when shot by Dropkick and the idiocy in which the members of the military/scientific group (Sector 7) is portrayed.  Even as comic relief, it fails spectacularly, much like when Bumblebee peed on John Turturro in the original Transformers.

You could have been a star.

The other weakness is the misuse of John Cena as a special operations soldier.  In the first scene Cena is in, he is relaxed, delivering some funny lines in a casual and delightful way, giving a glimpse of a character we can really get behind.  This Cena is never seen again, as Cena’s character becomes a caricature of a soldier, shrieking many of his lines and trying to kill everything.  Bay must have found a way to slip his bonds one day when Knight was taking his morning constitution.

Overall, the film is more good than bad and occasionally self-aware.  One example of this is when the Sector 7 clowns are debating whether or not to trust the Decepticons, Cena’s character shouts “they literally have decept in their names.”  If we can get a lot more of this in subsequent films, this franchise may actually redeem itself.  As long as the duct tape for Michael Bay doesn’t run out, that is.

Rating: Ask for three dollars back, which is weird to say for a Transformers film.

Black Panther

Black Panther

By: Kevin Jordan

You almost had it.

For the first 114 minutes of its 134-minute running time, Black Panther is a really good movie.  Those 114 minutes are exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Marvel Studios movie – fun, witty, and visually excellent, with memorable characters you cannot wait to see more of in future movies.  It even manages to tackle a couple of social issues without stepping on itself.  So, what the hell was the last twenty minutes all about?  It was like watching Hamilton, but getting hit in the face with a pie during the final act.  Since the rest of the movie is good, you’ll forgive the pie, but not cool bro.

(SPOILERS – I am going to describe that pie.)

There is a lot to like in this movie, so that is where I am going to spend most of this review.  The film begins with a quick back story of the fictional African country of Wakanda – a country filled with vibranium and magic herbs delivered by a meteor strike centuries ago.  Using those two things, the Wakandans developed super-advanced technology, including imbuing their ruler with super powers (making that person the Black Panther), flying in anti-gravity, UFO-like aircraft, and healing all manner of disease and injury.  It also begs the question “where were these jerks when aliens invaded the planet in The Avengers?”  I’m guessing the Avengers would have appreciated the help, considering Wakandan technology makes Tony Stark’s tech look like he’s playing with Duplos.

That would have been helpful against the Chitauri. Or Ultron.

Incidentally, this refusal to help others or share their technology is the driving conflict between the main characters of the film.  King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and wiseman/priest Zuri (Forest Whitaker) want to keep Wakanda’s secrets hidden from the world (like their civilization has always done), while special operative/former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), and the exiled Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) want to reveal the hidden secret of Wakanda to the world and help people.  Like in Captain America: Civil War, both sides make really arguments, so it is tough to decide which side to root for.  I mean, you’ll root for T’Challa because he’s the Black Panther, but you’ll question him while you’re doing it.

For most of the film, it feels like we’re watching a James Bond flick.  T’Challa and a couple of warriors, Nakia and Okoye (Danai Gurira), embark on missions to stop people from smuggling vibranium out of the country.  They are repeatedly seen inside a command area and they even have a gadget maker in T’Challa’s 16-year old sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright).  When they learn of a museum heist involving an artifact that was actually vibranium, they determine the perpetrator is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis).  I know – I thought Klaue was dead too and this confused me for a while.  Also, I think Serkis was ecstatic to play a character that didn’t involve motion-capture because he was visibly having as much fun in his role as Cate Blanchett had in Thor: Ragnarok.  Anyway, they hatch a plan to catch Klaue by undercover to a casino where Klaue plans to sell the artifact to a CIA agent, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).  And, just in case you don’t think I’ve sold the case of this film being James Bond: Marvel Edition, they stage a car chase scene with a high-tech luxury car.  The only thing missing was British accents.

I made these.

While I was really into the spy-esque thriller feel of the film, I also couldn’t help marveling at a couple of the characters and the performances being delivered.  As good as Boseman is in the title role, the sneaky good performances come from Serkis, Wright, and most especially, Gurira.  Wright attacks her part with an earnestness that endears her to the audience immediately.  Serkis revels in a villain role where we can actually see his face and invokes glimpses of Joker-level crazy/genius.  But Gurira steals nearly every scene she is in, combining her tough-as-nails Walking Dead persona (Michonne) with a patient and wise advisor to create a character every bit as powerful and charismatic as Black Panther.  Watching her admonish T’Challa as if he were nothing more than her pupil made me wonder who was the real leader of Wakanda.

So there I was, minding my own business and enjoying a really good movie when, out of nowhere, Klaue is unceremoniously replaced as the villain by Killmonger.  Aside from the fact that Killmonger is a terrible villain name, his character is woefully underdeveloped.  In fact, Killmonger is such a thin character that agent Ross (who is also laughably underdeveloped) is forced to monologue Killmonger’s backstory for the Wakandan leaders, as well as the audience.  Turns out, Killmonger wants revenge for his father’s death and I lost interest in anything he did or said after that.  Apparently, the writers also recognized this so, after about a five-minute digression where the movie becomes The Lion King, they wrote in a Lord of the Rings-style, epic, battle royale where Wakandans fight other Wakandans for no reason while dodging armored rhinos.  *SPLAT!!*

Can you see me now?

What’s so frustrating about this climax is that the movie goes to great lengths to detail Wakandan culture and tradition, featuring the succession ceremonies and fierce loyalty, then tosses it out the window because rmored rhinos dammit!  Plus, half of the Wakandan warriors decide to fight T’Challa after discovering he is still alive, meaning Killmonger isn’t technically isn’t their king (after besting T’Challa earlier).  Even if you enjoy such battles in your movies, the tonal shift in the film to get there was so jarring it felt like it came from a whole different movie.  It was like watching a baseball manager bring in his worst relief pitcher when the starter was throwing a shutout.

Despite the uninspiring climax and dull (second) villain, the rest of the movie was so strong that I would still rank it in the top tier of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Black Panther being the eighteenth film in the franchise).  I’m very interested to see where they go from here with Wakanda, their technology, and Tony Stark realizing he isn’t the smartest person on the planet.  I can’t wait to see how Okoye plays into the larger picture and no actor is more satisfying to watch than Boseman as Black Panther.  In other words, Black Panther is well worth watching and a great final lead-in to Avengers: Infinity War.  Mmmm…pie?

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back unless that pie ruined your shirt.

London Has Fallen

By: Kevin Jordan

Quit it already, the ‘80’s are dead.

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One of my favorite movie sites, Ruthless Reviews, has an entire set of reviews under the heading 80s Action.  As every cinephile knows, the 1980’s were overflowing with action movies.  Ruthless came up with a format for reviewing those movies in which the following components were included: homoeroticsm, corpse count, how bad is it really, post-mortem one-liner, stupid political content, and novelty death.  Without fail, every 80’s action flick had more than enough content for each of those categories.  With the rise of the superhero movie, 80’s action style movies have all but vanished, but there are still a handful released every year (usually straight to DVD or starring Jason Statham) for those nearing-middle-aged people who love big, dumb action flicks, but want that damned CGI to get off their lawns.

(Like Olympus Has Fallen, I’m going to SPOIL a lot of this film because you should not waste your money on it, even if you love 80s action flicks).

London Has Fallen is very much an 80s action flick, as was its idiotic predecessor, Olympus Has Fallen.  I didn’t think Olympus Has Fallen did well enough to merit a sequel, but it somehow tricked $161 million dollars’ worth of moviegoers (on a $70 million budget) into seeing it.  Anyway, like Olympus, London asks you to believe things so insane and unbelievable that even most 80s action stars are shaking their heads.  This time around, a bunch of world leaders attend a funeral in London after the British Prime Minister unexpectedly dies.  Terrorists attack the leaders prior to the funeral because it’s much easier to kill a bunch of people in different locations than it is to wait until they are all in one spot.  Of course, the President of the United States (Aaron Eckhart) – or POTUS, as Hollywood likes to say – and his super, special, secret service agent, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) survive the initial attack and the rest of the movie is standard action flick fare – bad guys chase good guys and lots of people die while things explode.  Why?  Because the mastermind terrorist (Alon Moni Aboutboul) isn’t satisfied with killing hundreds of people – including an untold number of world leaders >= 4 (seriously, they don’t tell us the number) – and destroying half of London, HE MUST HAVE THE POTUS!!

Look, I knew going in that this movie was going to be loud and dumb, so all I was hoping for was a plausible execution of the attack (you know, like Olympus didn’t have) and I would happily enjoy the remainder of the film.  Yeah…no.  The writers of this “movie” went out of their way to make several characters say variations of “this is the most secured event in the history of the world” and even showed us scene after scene of security forces checking IDs, walking police dogs around, and using those mirrors-on-wheels to look for car bombs.  So, with all of that security, how do the terrorists wreak such havoc?  By posing as cops.  That may sound plausible until you watch dozens of terrorists (out of hundreds) start murdering people in various ways.  Remember, this is the most secure event in the Milky Way, so of course no legitimate cop wonders who all the new middle-eastern-looking cops are that just happened to show up for THE MOST SECURE EVENT EVER!!!!!.  I know, and that’s not all.  Just before all the attacks we are shown the Japanese leader stuck in traffic on a random bridge, the French leader chilling in a boat on the Thames, and the Italian leader and his wife getting ready to bone on the roof of Westminster Abbey.  Not only were dozens of terrorists able to infiltrate police ranks, but they also just happened to know precisely where these leaders would accidentally be prior to those leaders accidentally being there so they could blow them up with bombs.  Now, you should be asking yourself if their psychic abilities were that awesome, why didn’t they get the POTUS?  Because POTUS got there earlier and didn’t tell anyone.  Take THAT, stupid other world leaders who also didn’t tell anyone where they would be.

I know what you are really wondering now so, in honor of Ruthless Reviews, let’s finish this up with their 80s action flick components.

Homoeroticism

In the actual 1980s, you could always count on some female nudity to soften the male homoeroticism, but there is nary a female breast or ass to be found in 2016 London.  The two biggest female characters are Banning’s pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell) and his boss (Angela Bassett), who is impaled by helicopter shrapnel early in the film, so any chance of convincing us these dudes aren’t thinking about some together time in the Lincoln Bedroom is quickly dashed.  And, let’s not forget that the President is widowed because Mike chose to save him first rather than his wife (this happened in Olympus).  Plus, the film opens with Mike struggling to decide on resigning his posting to the President’s detail so he can be with his wife and soon-to-be-born child.  What can I say – the heart wants what the heart wants.  Also, these bits of dialogue happen:

Banning (to the President): “I was wondering when you were going to come out of the closet.”

British SAS soldier to Banning: “Take care of your balls.”

Corpse count

I didn’t actually keep count, but we’re told hundreds…and I’d guess that we visibly saw at least fifty.  Banning himself is responsible for no less than thirty and even POTUS tallies several.  But don’t worry too much because the vast majority of the dead are either British citizens or terrorists.  Let’s be honest, Earth – if they aren’t American, nobody really gives a shit, am I right?

Novelty death

There are so many to choose from – from Banning crushing a guy’s throat with a well-aimed two-by-four to Bassett’s death by shrapnel to Banning jamming a broken piece of metal into a terrorist’s lungs.  But, I’m going with Banning sideswiping his car against a concrete overpass pillar to remove a dangling terrorist from his window.  Does the terrorist’s head stay in Banning’s hands?  You bet it does.  Does Banning toss it through the passenger side window, inches from a horrified Bassett?  You’d be disappointed if he didn’t.

Post-mortem one-liner

When Banning shoves the broken metal into the terrorist’s lungs, he’s also taunting the terrorist’s brother via walkie-talkie, ala John McClane.  After tossing away the walkie, the President asks “Did you really have to do that?”  Banning’s response: “Nope.”  And, yes, Banning is grinning a little.

Stupid political content

Terrorists have infiltrated emergency response services, they are hiding under your bed, they’re in your closet, and Obama still hasn’t called Jack Bauer to save us all from a fiery, bullet-riddled death.  The FBI, NSA, and CIA must have access to all of your communications or some guy with an al- in his name is going to blow up a Banana Republic.  They say the terrorists hate us because of our freedom, not because we shot a missile at that brightly covered wedding pavilion in the desert and accidentally killed 40 or so party guests in order to kill that one really, really, bad guy who, luckily, left the party early (this happened in the movie).  At some point, the rest of us are going to accept the fact that war works both ways and demand that our government either stops invading countries or stops doing it half-assed.

How bad is it really?

Well, it’s not worse than Olympus, but it’s not better.  Between Butler struggling to deliver an American accent while surrounded by his British countrymen and a pointless Pentagon crisis room filled with Academy Award nominated/winning actors occasionally clapping or barking into a phone, you have a movie that doesn’t want to say anything more than (sing it with me): “America – Fuck Yeah”.  That and “the 80s will never die.”

Rating: If you didn’t learn from Olympus Has Fallen, nothing I say here will stop from you from pissing away ten more dollars.

P.S. – Thank you, Ruthless Reviews.