It’s been 11 years since a Transformers movie left audiences feeling good at the movies. 2017’s The Last Knight pummelled out almost every last inch of joy the 2007 original sparked. With its lacklustre returns dooming the Transformers universe films into the unknown, it is a relief to see that Bumblebee recaptures and reinvigorates a franchise in much need of some Energon.
Travis Knight (who helmed the wonderful Kubo and the Two Strings) proves that while juggling intergalactic robot aliens at war with their human counterparts is a big deal, it doesn’t always have to punch you in the face all the time. And that, is a welcome break from the Michael Bayness that had engulfed the previous films.
With that said, Knight doesn’t shy away from appeasing long time fanboys. Bay was notoriously against making the Transformers exact replicas of their cartoon selves. Knight however, throws us long suffering fans a bone. The opening sequence (a nice throwback to the animated movie from 1986) takes place on Cybertron and is what has been missing from the Bayverse. It’s a few minutes long and says, “I got you”, to those long time fans.
Bumblebee escapes Cybertron to find a new home for the Autobots and finds himself on Earth, circa 1987. We know this because of the title cue, but also because of the glorious 1980s colour palette and music. Once the opening synthesizers of Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” start blaring out, the movie really finds its footing. Bumblebee meets Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a just-turned-18 young woman who like most teenagers, is finding her pre-adult life difficult. Charlie’s dad has passed away and she struggles to find happiness in her world.
She gets picked on, her job sucks, and she can’t seem to finish the project her and her dad worked on before he passed. Her character is one that is both relatable and sympathetic- qualities missing from just about every human character since the first two movies. Steinfeld’s Watson is resourceful, witty, and good at fixing cars. She’s actually a weird amalgamation of Shia LeBeouf’s Sam and Megan Fox’s Mikaela, except less shouty- which is a good thing. The point is, we like her.
She meets Bumblebee and the two bond. Like a good John Hughes flick, its awkward hellos and music that forms the connection. The two have to fight off incoming Decepticons who are after the location of Optimus Prime and the Autobot base. They get help from a pretty well rounded human cast, highlighted by the seemingly hopeless boy-next-door Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Sector 7 agent Jack Burns (John Cena being John Cena) and Charlie’s family.
Knight and writer Christina Hodson have done a good job with the humour. It’s a subtle blast of humour (Bumblebee no fan of Rick Astley or The Smiths? Gold), and thankfully, nothing painfully juvenile like scrotums on a giant robot or one urinating on a human.
It is this deftness that works. Sure, we get explosions and robot battles, but we also get some quieter, lighter touches. Both Bay and Steven Spielberg are credited as Executive Producers on this flick but its the latter whose influence seems more prevalent.
But more importantly, Knight has made us care about this franchise again. At least I do. Bumblebee is supposed to be a prequel to the 2007 film, and while we do get a lot of connections to that film, it still has a lot of work to do to connect directly to the original (but then again, everything became so confusing that maybe, it’ll be more of a reset than a prequel). Nonetheless, it’s great to see that with someone other than Bay at the reins, the Transformers have life. Sure, there’s some pure nostalgia written in (Stan Bush! Yes!), but there’s hope, and there’s joy.
A big blockbuster that’s got the touch. I guess you could say its more than meets…
Directed by: Travis Knight
Written by: Christina Hodson
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz
Released by: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 114 minutes
Film Review: Booksmart
Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.
The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.
The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).
Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).
Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.
So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.
Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.
Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins