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.

The Drop

By: Kevin Jordan

Now you can rest in peace, James.

The Drop

Can you imagine if the last movie we saw featuring the late James Gandolfini was Enough Said – a romantic comedy?  I didn’t see the movie myself – and judging by the box office, neither did you – but the critics loved it and it garnered several award nominations, though zero Oscars.  But come on, nobody wants to remember Gandolfini in a cutesy date movie much like nobody wants to remember that Michael Jordan finished his career with the Washington Wizards.  They want to remember Gandolfini as a Soprano, or at least some kind of organized criminal.  Thankfully, somebody out there was wise enough to make his last release The Drop – a movie in which he gets to say “fuck” enough times to make you think you might actually be watching a lost episode of The Sopranos.

As I said in my review of The November Man, this time of year lacks talked-about movies and is a graveyard for medium-to-low budget flicks that studios have no faith in.  So, imagine my surprise to find that not only was The Drop good, but it was nearly flawless.  My friend and I discussed the film at length on the drive home and, with the exception of an ending that felt like a last minute thrown in and cop out, we couldn’t find any obvious problem with the movie.  It’s exactly the kind of movie that any actor would love to be their last.

(Mild SPOILERS ahead with zero cussing.)

The movie starts out by telling us that a river of dirty money exchanges hands in Brooklyn every night and that the crime bosses choose random bars to move the money – referred to as drops.  Now, you might think that Gandolfini is the main character in this movie by my earlier words, but it’s actually Tom Hardy.  Hardy plays Bob, a bartender at a local bar run by his cousin, Marv (Gandolfini).  The plot of the movie revolves around a plot to steal one of the drops, but the characters are the most interesting part of movie.  Excellent development of the characters moves the plot forward, so let’s take a look at them.

Marv is a former crime boss (we’re never sure how big) that was pushed out by a group of Chechens who took over his bar nearly ten years earlier.  Now, he still runs the bar, but is nothing more than a bar manager forced to pay money to the Chechens’ racketeering and protection scheme.  When two guys rob the bar, he keeps his head and just hands them the money, which doesn’t fit anything we know about Gandolfini characters.  He is disgruntled about his lot in life and is susceptible to reckless decisions, as Bob will later fill us in on.  If you’ve seen the previews, you know that Marv is planning something and it’s exactly the kind of thing we want Gandolfini characters to do.

Speaking of Bob, he is the most interesting character in the film, as he should be.  He’s a simple guy who lives by himself and tends to the bar.  He is initially presented as simple-minded, but it becomes apparent that he might actually be the brains in his partnership with Marv.  For Bob, everything is black and white.  Anyone who beats a dog or a woman is a punk, dogs are difficult to take care of, and bodies or body parts must be properly disposed of.  This is most apparent when, after the bar is robbed, the arm of one of the bandits is left hanging on a fence outside the bar with the money that was stolen.  Marv asks what was the intention of leaving the money with the arm and Bob simply answers “I think they intend us to return it to them.”  See what I mean?  Simple.

Nadia (Noome Rapace) lives near Bob.  She enters the movie when Bob finds an abused dog whimpering in her trash can.  Bob insists she help with the dog and the two form a bond over the poor dog.  Nadia has her secrets (as does Bob) and is as reserved as Bob, but the two of them open each other up over the course of the movie.  Nadia also has a crazy ex-boyfriend who is responsible for beating and leaving the dog (to get her attention) and targets Bob as a threat when he sees the two of them together.

Crazy ex-boyfriend, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), is believed to have killed a guy right around the time Marv lost the bar and pops up more and more as the movie wears on.  At first, he is just a creepy stalker guy, but he slips into the larger plot as all of the events and history start connecting as the movie builds.  You will hate this guy, not the least because he steals Bob’s umbrella just before a rainstorm.  That’s just wrong.

Detective Torres (John Ortiz) is in charge of investigating the initial robbery of the bar.  He attends the same church as Bob, is upset that the church is closing, and is far too interested in the fact that Bob never takes communion at mass.  If there’s a weak character, he’s it.  I was never quite sure what role he would play and he never really figures into the plot.  His job seems to be to figure out mysteries and clues just after they are revealed to the audience.  He doesn’t figure into the climax, but does get to deliver the best line of the movie near the end.

Everyone else includes Marv’s sister, the head Chechen mobster, a priest, a second detective and the two guys that perpetrate the initial robbery.  They all get lines, but are really inconsequential, except the Chechen guy.  He’s like a James Bond villain without a cool (goofy?) quirk, but a willingness to nail people’s legs to cargo vans.  He’s sufficiently intimidating and you can see Marv’s fear and loathing every time the guy shows up.

What I found impressive with the story is how well all of these characters meld into the story unfolding throughout the film.  The development was very well done and was the key component to the slow build of the drama and tension leading to the climax.  You feel sorry for Bob and hope nothing bad happens to him, but slowly notice that there’s more to him than just a bartender.  You root for Bob and Nadia to come together because they both seem like people who need another person in their life who isn’t crazy or reckless.  You hate Eric because he beats dogs and steals umbrellas and just won’t leave Bob alone.  You want to feel bad for Marv, but you can’t because he’s kind of a dick to his sister and Bob who are only guilty of looking out for Marv.  You like the dog because oohhh, little puppy is just so cute.

My point is that this movie is definitely one of my top five of the year because the story and characters are so well done that you don’t even want to eat your popcorn or sip your drink because you might have to look away to do that.  But, if there’s one thing that makes this movie stand out is how awesome Hardy’s performance was.  I’m not the best person to be judging performances, but even I know that Hardy deserves an Oscar for this.  Gandolfini can rest easy knowing that Hardy made this movie a great one for Gandolfini to go out on.

Rating:  If you ask for any money back, Gandolfini will haunt you and it won’t be the cuddly Gandolfini from Enough Said.