For almost a decade, I’ve found myself fighting a losing battle trying to defend Michael Bay’s loud, brazen screen-smashing Transformers series, which I actually kinda dig — sure, his films aren’t high art, but no one does over-the-top spectacle better than Michael Bay. Things, however, are about to change.
After eleven years of blowing shit up in his Bayformers quintet, Michael Bay steps out of the director’s seat and into a producing role (alongside Steven Spielberg), handing the reigns over to Oscar-nominated animator/ current CEO of Laika Animation Travis Knight, Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), to do a bit of a course correct, Knight veering the property in a different direction. Undoubtedly influenced by films from the eighties, à la 1986’s Short Circuit, 87’s *batteries not included, and Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Knight breathes new life into the Hasbro series with Bumblebee, a charming throwback to the classic Amblin-style boy-and-his-magical-pet flicks of old.
‘… not too shab-bee.’
Truth be told, re-energizing the live-action Transformers pictures was never going to be easy, seeing as most of the movie-going public refer to the Bay’s robots in disguise flicks as a kind of cinematic scrapheap that’s beyond salvaging. But Knight knows stories and understands that simplicity is key, the 45-year-old filmmaker stripping things down, choosing to tackle a character-driven back-to-basics origin tale, Bumblebee finding its heart by focusing on the bond between young human and Autobot that started it all back in 2007.
Working as a spin-off, a prequel, and a soft reboot, the film begins with a rapid-fire fully animated opening on the planet of Cybertron, where the heroic Autobots are in the midst of a centuries-long war against the evil Decepticons, our heroes finding themselves on the waning side. It’s clear at this early stage that the action is much easier to follow as the self-configuring robots have been redesigned to look less clunky, their transformations slowed down for clarity, each ‘bot resembling their G1 counterparts, which is sure to please fans of the ’84 cartoon — seeing a retro Soundwave and his attack dog Ravage in live-action made me grin from ear to ear. Anyhow, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen reprising his iconic role), who pops up in all his boxy nostalgic glory, decides that the Autobots should retreat, Prime sending a young soldier B-127 (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) to scout a nearby sphere called Earth as a possible hideout for their kind, his task, to keep the planet safe from the eventual arrival of the Decepticons.
A force to bee reckoned with
And so, B-127 crash-lands into our planet via flaming meteor circa 1987, interrupting a military training session led by enigmatic government agency Sector 7 commander Jack Burns (John Cena), who promptly sees the alien as a threat and hunts him down. The gunfire is interrupted by the arrival of another visitor, Decepticon spy Blitzwing (David Sobolov), who is after B-127, planning to interrogate him on the whereabouts of Autobot leader Prime. After a nifty action sequence, our battle-scarred robo-hero loses his voice box but escapes his pursuers, transforming into a faded 1967 yellow Volkswagen Beetle before hiding in a San Francisco Bay Area junkyard.
Enter Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a music-loving outcast (that listens to The Smiths) who’s on the verge of turning eighteen, the angsty teen spending her days in the garage attempting to fix a classic 1959 Corvette she’d started working on with her late father, who’d recently died of a heart attack. Desperate for independence, Charlie stumbles on the old VW while looking for spare parts, bringing it home as a birthday treat for herself at the behest of her uneasy mother Sally (Pamela Adlon) and Sally’s new boyfriend Ron (Stephen Schneider).
Charlie, however, gets the shock of a lifetime when her rusty old Bug transforms into a giant sentient robot. Once over the initial jolt, Charlie begins to see him as an oversized puppy dog, even though he’s armed with a blaster cannon and a retractable blade, assertively naming him Bumblebee and coaching him in the ways of his new home. With his childlike naivety getting him into all sorts of strife, taking care of Bee becomes a full-time gig for Charlie, who’s also tied to a fairground job at Hot Dog on a Stick, where a nearby churro worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) — who happens to live next door — has the hots for her. But, as Charlie and her new pet begin to bond, Bumblebee’s intergalactic troubles find their way to the sleepy little beach town, with two Decepticons, huntress Shatter (Angela Bassett) and her partner Dropkick (Justin Theroux) — who’ve duped Sector 7 into joining forces with them — closing in to take the ‘renegade’ Bee out.
‘Hive never seen anything like you bee-fore.’
Written by Christina Hodson, who’s prepping to pen the Birds of Pray movie for Warner Bros., Bumblebee is less convoluted than Bay’s mayhem infused outings, predominantly focusing on three (yes, only three) Transformers, the screenplay much lighter (and generally softer thanks to the female screenwriter) than what we’re used to. An enchanting coming-of-age story for both its titular character and female protagonist, this simpler script also succeeds as a glowing throwback to the youth-oriented Spielbergian classics of yesteryear, the film managing to recapture that sense of wonder and innovation of Bay’s original Transformers while retaining the tone of a Saturday morning cartoon. Sure, at times Bumblebee can feel a bit derivative, especially of the films it’s trying to pay tribute to, but given what’s come before, it totally works.
Keeping the action stirring and visuals exciting, Knight never forgets that this is a film with eighties DNA coursing through its veins, a story set in a world where the monsters are just as frightened of us as we are of them, where the kids are always one step ahead of the adults, and where friendship is stronger than any obstacle that comes in its way. A radical throwback to the MTV-era of the eighties, Knight indulges in period-specific iconography, referencing everything from bulky Walkmans to Mr. T Cereal, TaB Cola to John Hughes classics, we even have a nod to the 1986 telly show AFL — ‘No problem.’ The soundtrack is killer also, the flick including tracks such as Steve Winwood’s uplifting ‘Higher Love,’ Tears for Fears’ excellent ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ and Stan Bush’s ‘The Touch’ from Transformers – The Movie (1986), not to mention an amusing gag featuring Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up,’ which has been plastered all over the trailers, the music adding a timeless sorta quality to things.
‘Um … bee carful in there.’
Love him or hate him, Bumblebee also benefits from the groundwork laid out by Bay in his prior five installments (there are plenty of nods to Bay’s series, too), filmmakers using the previous robot designs, sound effects and Bay’s golden lensing as a jumping off point, building their movie around the ‘super cool’ template that Michael Bay is known for — it’s interesting to note that Knight never outright rejects any of the history from Bay’s movies either, choosing to sidestep it instead.
With that said, the film truly succeeds thanks to its central relationship between Charlie and her change-o-bot pal. Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen (2016), delivers a sincere portrayal as the grieving teen struggling to let go of the past, Charlie reconnecting with someone for the first time since the loss of her dad, the 21-year-old pop star/ actress really grounding the proceedings with her first-rate work. Furthermore, Knight imbues the robots, chiefly Bee, with personality and complex human kinks, using facial expressions and body language to portray an array of emotions — a Judd Nelson fist pump, for instance, is used at precisely the right moment. A sequence that plays out like a silent-comedy skit, which sees the sun-colored Beetle fumble about alone in Charlie’s home, accidentally making a ginormous mess and then making it even worse when trying to stop, is another hands-down winner, mainly because we believe that he’s genuinely distraught — again, it only works because we care about the characters and their situations.
As for the supporting cast, John Cena, Blockers (2018), is a hoot as military jock Agent Burns, the WWE superstar doing his best to wring a laugh out of every scene he’s in — a sly observation about his uneasy alliance with the Decepticons is spot on — whilst Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Love, Simon (2018), is solid as Charlie’s smitten neighbor Memo, a supplementary player who’s literally just here for the ride. Small-screen star Stephen Schneider is great as Charlie’s clueless stepdad Ron, who gifts her with a book titled Smile For A Change for her birthday, while John Ortiz, Kong: Skull Island (2017), seems to be enjoying himself as the sniveling Dr. Powell of Sector 7. Last but not least is Jason Drucker, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (2017), who nails it as Charlie’s annoying karate-loving tyke of a brother Otis.
Beauty is in the eye of the bee-holder.
A rip-roaring family-friendly gem about finding one’s purpose and um, voice, there’s more than meets the eye to this latest Transformers offering. Soaked with reverence to the era that gave birth to the Transformers brand, Bumblebee is a touching, humorous, well-acted piece of popcorn entertainment, and an absolute delight of a film, one that’s sure to re-energize the ’80s toy franchise for a whole new generation. For me, though, Bumblebee signifies the end of a lonely era, as I can finally enjoy a Transformers film with the masses. Yes, Bumblebee is excellent. And I ain’t afraid to say it!
There was a steady build-up of promotion around Boy Erased. With its core exploration of religion versus sexuality and an air of self-importance about it, its message felt urgent. And no, if you’re wondering, we’re not in the same happy territory as this year’s other heavily promoted gay-themed outing Love, Simon, which successfully deployed the genre tropes of teen rom-coms to explore the complexities of being gay in high school. Here we’re looking at something graver, the deadly serious dilemmas of sexuality versus one’s responsibility to family, faith and the self.
Based on the true story of writer Garrard Conley, Boy Erased follows Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) in the uncomfortable aftermath of realizing he’s gay. Coming out to his conservative Christian family, consisting of his hairdresser mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe), he’s given an ultimatum — either change or be ousted from the family. Out of love for his folks, Jared chooses option number one, where he’s sent to a gay ‘conversion therapy’ program called Love in Action, headed up by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), who uses extreme methods to try and pull homosexuality out of teens. Within the facility’s highly secretive walls, Jared finds himself increasingly confronted by his sexuality and whether it can, in fact, be ‘cured’ at all.
As writer-director (and actor in a supporting role), Joel Edgerton has returned to the big chair after last starring in his brother Nash’s quickly forgotten action-comedy Gringo (2018), while his directorial debut, the shadowy The Gift (2015), received critical acclaim several years back. Boy Erased is similar to the former in featuring a favorable ensemble cast, yet Joel keeps a tight focus here, centering the point of view with Jared and his direct experiences, along with flashbacks to the moments that made him realize his attraction towards men, mainly his relationship with college ‘friends’ Henry (Joe Alwyn) and Xavier (Théodore Pellerin).
It’s okay to be you.
A mellow Russell Crowe, The Mummy (2017), is decent when given the opportunity to play off Lucas Hedges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), even if this could’ve gone deeper, considering that much of the film’s chief predicament hinges on their dynamic. Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled (2017), is fine but feels like she’s cruising on autopilot — almost as if she’s walked off the set of 2016’s Lion and straight into this one, her sympathetic maternal instincts echoing that of Sue Brierley from the aforementioned film. As both supportive wife to Marshall and understanding mother to Jared, despite being caught between such love and loyalties, she’s the type of person who tends to look on the brighter but ultimately gets to say her piece towards the climax.
Joel Edgerton himself is as endlessly watchable as ever, keeping things low-key and allowing his fellow castmates to really go for the larger bursts of confrontation. Lucas Hedges being the central star has a lot of weight on his shoulders, and it shows in his rather stiff presence. It’s a bit of a contrast to the real Garrard Conley, who shows up in a few photos over the end credits, and appears to be a more animated sort of person.
The ace-in-the-hole, though, is the most unexpected, in utilizing famed bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Flea, Baby Driver (2017). Introduced as a facility enforcer named Brandon, who’s a recovered addict to virtually everything, his leathery skin and hardened demeanor convince that we’re witnessing something of a truth when he gives a testimony. Watching him eventually turn on Jared then, going from accessible to intimidating, is one of the more unsettling character transitions of the film.
A Cure for Wellness
Of course, one of the underlying challenges in adapting a real-life story is finding that line between factual events and fictionalized ones, in an attempt to make the emotional journey accessible. With Edgerton altering the actual names, I imagine some license has been taken to create a film that, despite being sold as ‘based on fact,’ can be taken on its own individual terms. Now, I’m not sure what’s fabricated for dramatic effect, but a scene involving a faux funeral seems to be a bit over-the-top in an otherwise subdued affair, this scene involving literal bible-bashing to beat the homosexuality out of a tragic victim Cameron (Britton Sear). It’s an undeniably shocking moment yet I wasn’t quite convinced that such extremity fit into this narrative, this sequence taking me out of the movie for a moment. If it is a product of invention, then it almost threatens to undo the thoughtful, balanced exploration at hand, aiming the blame at the misguided authority figures, not the beliefs they’ve interpreted, which, as I understand it, is something of an important distinction for Garrard Conley and the message he wished to convey in his memoir of the same name.
It’s intriguing to note that if the above-mentioned ‘bible-bashing’ is even a partial invention, then, as touched on earlier, there is a sorely missed dramatic opportunity elsewhere in developing the on-screen relationship between the father Marshall and son Jared. They don’t get as much time together as you’d think and perhaps it’s part of the point with the father seeking an easy fix to what he views as something that’s simply broken. If their little time together does reflect reality, then it’s an area that could have done with some fictional elaboration, drawing out more from Marshall as he wrestles within his family, the community and himself. The resolution of the father-son relationship hinted in the trailer summarizes a great journey for Marshall, but we are never witness to it.
Torn by Treatment
While I feel that this story does explore some uncomfortable truths about the unsettling reality of sexuality ‘correction’ programs and will likely reach a healthy audience, there are two things outside of the film that I feel may hinder its goals. The first is that this story has been told before within queer cinema, even earlier this year when youth camps were put under the microscope in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Another example is Latter Days (2003), the big, shocking turn being when a young gay Mormon is put through one of these ‘treatment’ facilities. The second is, unlike the highly accessible Love, Simon, Boy Erased is unlikely to reach those who don’t already support the LGBT community, and that’s a damn shame. I feel that for this film to have the desired impact (i.e., get communities to question the role of such programs), it needs to be seen by those who orchestrate these centers and those who unwittingly support them. But perhaps this is all just wishful thinking, as we can’t blame Universal Pictures or Joel Edgerton who have done a great job in making sure that they deliver a well-crafted picture.
Here’s hoping the eventual home release will continue the film’s central conversations around this important subject.
What makes you different is what makes you Spider-Man.
As many comic book pontificators have noted over the years, one of the key appeals of Marvel’s Spider-Man is his anonymity.
Sure, all good Marvel Zombies know that the original recipe Spidey is none other than Queens kid Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive yadda yadda yadda and driven to fight crime because with great power comes great so on and so forth.
But when he slips that big-eyed mask on, he could be anyone. Suited up, Spidey is a character bereft of distinct identifying features — hair color, eye color, and race — even, just about gender. The notion that anyone could be Spider-Man makes identifying with the hero that much easier for the audience — it’s not that hard to imagine that it’s you under the cowl, swinging through New York City’s skyscraper canyons, quipping and thwipping and generally superheroing it up.
That’s not the only reason Spidey has been a fan favorite for over 50 years, but it’s a big part of it.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the new theatrical feature from Sony Pictures Animation, not only knows this, it doubles down on it, presenting us with a panoply of no less than seven Spider … people to choose from. Chief among them is newly-minted Spider-Man Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), here making his (non-MCU it should be noted) big screen debut some seven years after he first swung onto the pages of Marvel Comics.
… another sticky situation for Spidey.
A gifted Afro-Hispanic teen, Miles is bitten by a radioactive yadda yadda and is forced to take on the mantle of Spider-Man when the original webhead (Chris Pine) is taken out by the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber), after nearly derailing the crime lord’s plans.
Yep, Spidey is dead. Or, at least, a Spidey is dead. That would be a pretty major spoiler in any other review except, as the title of this particular film connotes, we’re dealing with multiple dimensions, planes of existence and, you guessed it, Spider-Men (Mans? I dunno). So, yes, while one wallcrawler makes the ultimate sacrifice in the never-ending battle (and is rewarded with a massive outpouring of collective grief and a hero’s funeral), there are plenty more to go around.
How so? Kingpin’s plans involve a big ol’ high tech underground machine that can bridge dimensions. Unluckily for him, what it’s done is brought a plethora of web-slinging heroes to his world who are hellbent on stopping him. There’s Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), who hails from a world where she, Gwen Stacy, gained superpowers rather than Peter Parker; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage, and let’s take a moment to savor that), a monochrome, trench-coat-and-fedora take on the hero; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime-flavored incarnation from the far future who has a spider-themed giant-ish robot companion; and Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), an anthropomorphic pig with spider powers (technically he’s a spider who was bitten by a radioactive pig, but whatever).
Getting into the swing of things.
And then there’s the other Peter Parker or Peter B. Parker, voiced by Jake Johnson, Jurassic World (2015), who finds himself reluctantly thrust into the role of mentor for young Miles: an older, shabbier, schlubbier Spidey, thick of waist and low on prospects, divorced from Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz) and wallowing in self-pity.
This is the best of the arrayed Spider-People, by the way — the notion of a Peter Parker who has kind of succumbed to his never-ending run of bad luck and bum notes is a delicious one and, with his voice acting, Johnson milks it for all that it’s worth, giving us a sardonic, cynical figure who can’t help but reveal, and ultimately revel in, the heroism he’s trying so hard to quash.
Johnson isn’t the only one here bringing their voice acting A game, and while there are showier turns that will attract fannish praise (Nic Cage is wonderful, and Kathryn Hahn’s role as a gender-flipped Doctor Octopus is a delight), it’s Miles Morales and his family that give Into the Spider-Verse its heart. Unlike previous incarnations of the ol’ web-head, Miles isn’t an orphan — his dad Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) is a cop, his mother Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez) is a nurse, and his cool uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) is more than slightly dodgy. Miles’ key problem isn’t trying to live up to the legacy of a dead father figure, à la Peter Parker, but handling two main role models who are pulling him in opposite directions: his stern but loving father, who wants him to excel academically at the exclusive private school Miles has been admitted to; and his hip, slightly (well, more than slightly) dangerous uncle, who lives in a tricked-out loft, who gives him advice about girls, and encourages his art (Miles is a graffiti artist, and there’s a whole essay waiting to be written about the brilliance of marrying the iconography of Spider-Man with hip-hop culture).
‘What? We met on the web.’
Into the Spider-Verse totally smashes it out of the park when it balances these emotional, relationship-driven themes with the big, free-wheeling four-color spectacle of its overall plot — and you better believe the action in this one is utterly jaw-dropping. The animation is absolutely beautiful, using texture and color and light in a way that live-action cinema simply cannot in order to present us with a film that is as close to a comic book come to life as we’ve ever seen. Into the Spider-Verse melds the conceits of film, animation and comic strips in what feels like a wholly new way, picking and choosing techniques to best effect moment to moment. This is a movie where huge, wide-screen action vistas sit alongside sketched-in, rough-pencil intimate details that look like they were pulled fresh from the drawing table of a Marvel Bullpenner; where sound effects and voice-over narration are written across the screen, where the frame is sometimes masked to mimic the shape and intent of comic panels, where clashing animation and drawing styles sit alongside each other and it somehow works perfectly.
Effectively, what the film does is take the sheer, overwhelming anarchic possibility of the best superhero comics — and certainly the best Marvel comics — and somehow force it into the narrative shape required of a tentpole blockbuster, and it does it in such a way that elevates both, better than any other superhero film we’ve seen before (Infinity War is bloated and bombastic. Search your heart — you know it to be true).
It does this by simply refuting cynicism — a trait common to the works of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, The LEGO Movie (2014), who are the key creatives behind the film (though they’re not, it should be noted, among the three credited directors). Yes, there are cynical characters in the mix (Johnson’s Parker chief among them), but the film goes out of its way to negate their viewpoint. Ironic distance has no place in a movie where a hardboiled detective, a talking pig, and a spider-piloted robot team up to save the multiverse — a hint of snark directed at the premise and the whole thing would collapse in a heap.
… and you thought the old Spider-Man was pretty amazing.
It doesn’t, because Into the Spider-Verse is all heart. While the action is spectacular, the really big moments are emotional. They’re Aunt May (Lily Tomlin, and holy hell is that good casting) getting to meet another version of her slain nephew; Johnson’s Peter coming face to face with his estranged wife; Miles finally taking up the mantle of a hero.
… and perhaps the most perfect and heart-wrenching Stan Lee cameo in history.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the real deal. Relieved of the burden of MCU continuity and franchise construction, it delivers the purest, most heart-swelling onscreen distillation of Marvel’s magnificence so far. It’s a big-hearted, big-screen, colorful, climactic paean to all that is good in superherodom, and you should absolutely sprint (or swing, or wall-crawl) to see it as soon as humanly possible.
The ninth fully animated 3D feature from Illumination Entertainment/ Universal Pictures, and their third Dr. Seuss adaptation — following 2008’s excellent Horton Hears a Who! and 2012’s even better The Lorax — The Grinch kind of left me cold. Why? Well, I’ve always considered Ron Howard’s live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) to be the definitive silver screen version of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s children’s holiday classic with Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the green, revenge-seeking grump so ludicrous and on the nose that I couldn’t imagine any other actor stepping into the character’s skin. So, with such a praiseworthy adaptation already in circulation, I kept asking myself if we really needed this newly animated retelling. The simple answer is no.
‘ … I just know yule love this one.’
Based on Dr. Seuss’ 69-page book, The Grinch tells the story of a cranky, cave-dwelling green guy (awkwardly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) who, along with his loyal canine companion Max, lives a life of solidarity up on the tip of Mt. Crumpet, North of Whoville, only venturing down to the town below when running out of provisions. On this particular December, however, the reclusive holiday-hating Grinch decides to swipe Christmas from the happy-go-lucky human-like denizens of Whoville (known as the Whos), who, each and every year, try to make the yuletide festivities brighter, brasher and noisier. And we all know how the story goes, the Mean One, who’s actually not so mean here (nor is he as feared or fearful), having a drastic change of heart after a brief run-in with a generous, spirited young girl named Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely), who shows our small-hearted anti-hero that he, too, can have a big heart.
Written by Michael LeSieur, who previously penned the not-so-funny Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016), and Tommy Swerdlow, whose most ‘renowned’ screenwriting credit is 1993’s Cool Runnings, The Grinch brings nothing new, narratively or thematically, to this timeless storybook tale, LeSieur and Swerdlow (essentially) stretching Seuss’ one-act story into a three-act structure, and it shows — it’s vastly predictable, with filmmakers failing to fill in the gaps with anything hearty or substantial. You see, Howard’s picture padded its runtime by exploring the delightfully flawed, overly cantankerous meanie in much more depth, giving him a complete redemption arc, whereas this reworking is wholly focused on gags and slapstick with barely a hint of profundity or substance, bar some kid-friendly power of optimism stuff — clearly, it’s catering to young children rather than adults or families.
Although we are given reasons behind the misanthropic Mr. Grinch’s merrytime loathing — ya know, his head not being screwed on just right, or his shoes being too tight, via voice-over by Pharrell Williams (who’s both narrator and musical supervisor here) — any rock-solid validation is flimsy at best, and hardly justifies the sheer abhorrence the embittered Ebenezer has for the season. Sure, he was unloved as a child, growing up in an orphanage and always celebrating Christmas alone, but seeing that he does appear to have ‘friends’ — in the form or a jolly bearded Who named Mr. Bricklebaum (sprightly voiced by Kenan Thompson) — his bitterness and actions feel clunky and unwarrented. On the flipside, the Brian Grazer-produced Grinch gives motive and drive behind the furry hobgoblin’s disdain towards Christmas, the grouch, I mean Grinch berating the Whos for their greed and selfish ways while condemning Christmas for its narcissistic nature, claiming that it’s a self-serving holiday fuelled by gratuitous gift-giving. (Given the juggernaut that is consumerism today, these themes still ring very true.)
With the headier subtext dropped, this Grinch-y reimagining seems custom made for young’uns, the film playing out like a sugary stocking stuffer — it’s fun and flavorsome while it lasts, but quite forgetful once the time’s passed. And this extends into the design of the characters and their function also. The Grinch (himself) is softer, both in attitude and physicality (where’s his bludging potbelly gone?), resembling a fluffy green man-dog as opposed to a frightful, wrinkled, pear-shaped imp; just compare their child versions — sad and cute in this new incarnation versus slightly sadistic in the 2000 film. Max the dog is far more faithful and loving this time around, too, coming across like an extension of the Grinch — think a tangible conscience. So, he’s no longer looking scared or reluctant.
‘Behold … the cookie.’
Helmed by Secret Life of Pets (2016) co-director Yarrow Cheney, and newcomer Scott Mosier, The Grinch is, to say the least, a visual feast, boasting a bounty of whimsical Seussian imagery in each and every frame. As one would expect, the digital landscapes are seamlessly textured while the poppy Christmastime colors heighten the holiday cheer, Whoville a snow-engulfed, mountainous gingerbread-esque metropolis decked out with Christmassy fandangle.
And, look, the flick does have its fair share of bouncy bits, along with a wealth of high-spirited hijinks, which are sure to get the kiddies cackling — watching the grumbling green dude get stalked by an aggressive carol-singing acapella troupe is pretty darn gratifying. The pinnacle, however, is a montage that sees a Santa Clause-disguised Grinch (who wields some wicked army-knife candy canes) nab Christmas from under the Whos’ noses, this sequence elevated by the always-dependable Danny Elfman, whose fanciful and evocative score echoes that of the similarly-themed The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), also scored by Elfman, another film whose plot focuses on a mischief-maker wanting to nick Christmas.
You Better Watch Out!
Moreover, Elfman has also written his own rendition of ‘You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch’ (which features in the trailer) and an original track for this remake titled ‘I Am The Grinch’ with Tyler, the Creator — still, none of these linger more than Faith Hill’s mournful yet optimistic ‘Where Are You Christmas’ from the soundtrack of the 2000 film (which, to this very day, is still one my favorite ‘Christmas Carols’). Considering the straight aim is at children, though, it’s surprising to note just how little chimes and rhymes are actually used throughout the proceedings.
Regarding voice work, Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for his portrayal of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, makes a strange Mr. Grinch (ironic, huh?), his vocals coming off as a little too gentle and jarring for the tetchy titular troublemaker. The younger stars all fit the bill nicely, though, with Cameron Seely’s Cindy-Lou, and her elementary school pals Groopert (Tristan O’Hare), Axl (Ramone Hamilton), Izzy (Scarlett Estevez), and Ozzy (Sam Lavagnino), really stealing the show, the cluster of kids scheming to catch Santa (so that Cindy-Lou can hand him her ‘Christmas Wish’ letter in person) with hilarious results. Oh, Angela Lansbury, Beauty and the Beast (1991), has a couple of lines in this one as well, playing the Whoville mayor McGerkle.
Man’s best friend is the Grinch’s only friend.
As a sheer entertainer, The Grinch is a no-brainer. It’s got Christmas iconography aplenty, some decent humor, bright and bubbly artwork, and mushy messages for younglings, the film commenting on the infectious nature that joy and kindness can bring, especially around Christmas. Still, Howard’s Grinch does everything that this film does, only better, and it’s a lot more endearing for it. Yes, The Grinch is gorgeously decorated, but as a ho-ho-holiday treat, it kinda lacks meat, and is missing that magic of Christmas. Honestly, I don’t love the Minions, but their prison break short, titled Yellow is the New Black, which precedes the film, is, well, almost as enjoyable.
An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is what you would get if you fed an AI algorithm 15,000 slightly different drafts of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and commanded it to spit out an original screenplay. Shallowly obsessed with the grotesque and outré, more concerned with absurd non-sequiturs than actual constructed jokes, overly long, self-indulgent, and smug, the only thing the film holds in more contempt than its characters is its audience.
Luff Linn’s piss-thin plot orbits around bitter, deadpan waitress Lulu Danger (Aubrey Plaza, reverting to standard operating procedure in the face of facile direction), who works at a small town café with a couple of morons — Tyrone (Zach Cherry) and Carl (Sky Elobar) — and is trapped in a vicious, sparring marriage with her manager Shane (Emile Hirsch, one note and flailing). Stewing in her own juices after Shane fires her to cut costs, Lulu sees an ad on TV for ‘An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn for One Magical Night Only’ — some kind of weird live performance that seems to star a man from her past (played by the great Craig Robinson). Escaping the domestic drudgery of her home life with Shane, she’s determined to attend that ‘magical night’ and reconnect with Beverly, teaming up with would-be vigilante Colin Keith Threadener (Jemaine Clement) along the way. And then more things happen.
‘Don’t trash the stache.’
Not things of any consequence, mind you. Meaning is stupid, according to Beverly Luff Linn and its writer/ director Jim Hosking, The Greasy Strangler (2016), who co-wrote this tripe with David Wike, Champions (2006). Consistent characterization is stupid. Believable motivations are stupid. Dialogue is stupid — only deliberately stupid dialogue isn’t stupid. Everything sucks — the film is the cinematic equivalent of The Simpsons’ ‘cynical member of Generation X’ gag, a 108-minute sneer at … well, everything.
It’s so goddamn tiresome. What we have here is a film convinced of its own cleverness, when, in reality, it barely manages to brush the trailing underbelly of a half-assed satirical student newspaper in terms of quality of parody. It presents a gross, gaudy world populated by loathsome, dumb people trapped in morbid, depressing patterns of behavior — ‘John Kricfalusi by way of Tim & Eric’ seems to be the design goal, but the end result is ‘avowed Tom Green fan tanks at open mic night’ — just tedious yet enthusiastic ugliness thrown at the screen over and over and over again.
Everyone talks in an affected, stilted monotone. Why? Because it’s weird. Except for Beverly Luff Linn, who only communicates via foreboding grunts and growls. Why? Because it’s weird. He also wears a Scottish bonnet almost all the time. Why? Because … well, you know. Confronted with a narrative problem, a character interaction, or even just a lull, Hosking and Wike default to just dropping in the strangest, most offbeat reversal or response they can think of. Every time.
‘I’ll take it lying down.’
There’s a chance that sounds kind of amusing, but you need to banish that notion. Beverly Luff Linn is an absolute trudge of a film — indeed, it’d be a forced march even without its indulgent overlong running time. Scenes drag on and on as Lulu and Colin hole up in the hotel where Beverly is scheduled to play. The show keeps getting postponed, because … well, basically because a feature film needs to hit a certain length, and why go to all the trouble of actual plot mechanics when you can just do this? Meanwhile the virginal Colin pines for Lulu, which might bring some emotional engagement to the proceedings if either of them even remotely resembled real people with actual inner lives.
No, it’s all surface level stuff here, and that is the key problem. Everything that occurs is superficial in every respect. There is no unifying thesis. Whatever unique take Hosking has on the world — if indeed he has one — remains a mystery to us, because the vision presented on screen is just a mishmash of tropes and signifiers lifted from other, better filmmakers. Beverly Luff Linn wants to be mistaken for outsider art — the kind of film that can only come from a singularly out of whack and preternaturally talented auteur. But An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn fails to capture any of that Harmony Korine or David Lynch cultural juice, even though it tries so hard to emulate it. It’s a fake, a fugazi, a cynical attempt to mimic the tropes of the weird with none of the insight, vision, or — most damningly — desperate desire to communicate that marks the best underground films.
Drunk on You
Outsider movies that transcend the fringes of film culture manage to do so because they’re trying to explain ideas and viewpoints that conventional cinematic language simply fails to encompass. With An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, Jim Hosking is literally trying to steal that kind of underground cache, but authenticity will out. Don’t be drawn in by the film’s superficial strangeness; this is the cinematic equivalent of a hipster dive bar — all atmosphere, no substance, and no shame.
Coming across like a stagier, more self-serious version of Heathers (1988) shaded with a dash of Bret Easton Ellis, Thoroughbreds, the debut feature from writer and director Cory Finley, sees two upper class teenage girls plot to murder one’s overbearing, boorish stepfather in a deft, noir-ish little thriller that picks up points for style where it loses them for lack of originality.
Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the princess with a problem in the form of patriarchal Mark (Paul Sparks), her mother’s new husband, a man who very much sees himself as the king of his castle and wants nothing more than to pack his resentful step kid off to military school. It’s quite a pickle to be in, but Lily finds she has a confidante and possible secret weapon in Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a former friend she recently reunited with at the behest (and payment) of the latter’s mother. Amanda is not just a creepy kid; by her own admission, she feels no emotions whatsoever, prompting her mom to straight-up bribe Lily to study for exams with her. Amanda’s internal void does have some advantages, though — she teaches Lily to cry crocodile tears to keep her parents at bay and, more cogently, she guides her to the obvious conclusion that Mark can’t sentence her to a life of duty and discipline if he’s ten toes up.
… your move.
Set in carefully manicured upper-class Connecticut and populated with characters whose polished veneers conceal bottomless blankness, Thoroughbreds is the latest in a long line of darkness-behind-the-hedgerows crime thrillers, of which David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) is probably the most prominent example in modern cinema. The point of this kind of exercise is not to uncover the serpent in paradise, but to reveal that the whole joint is a festering, coiling pit of hissing, poisonous critters — they just have designer clothes and tennis coaches. While Amanda has the self-knowledge to realize she’s probably broken, Lily is no less icily ruthless when the chips are down — she just doesn’t have horse-blood on her hands (Amanda candidly admits to euthanizing her pet nag — one more reason for her ostracism).
Our most relatable character is amiably skeevy drug dealer Tim, played by the late and much-missed Anton Yelchin, Green Room (2015), who the pair tries to blackmail into doing the deed. Tim’s a self-aggrandizing loser, but he at least balks at the notion of murdering a man for no good reason (we can speculate, but the nature of Lily’s grievance against Mark is left intentionally vague). This scruffy also-ran is our audience surrogate, and his horror at the girls’ almost casual hankering for homicide is ours.
Good friends are great … but best friends are wicked!
Not to the point where we don’t want to see them do it, of course. Thoroughbreds draws a lot from Hitchcock, including the axiom that, on some level, we want to see the criminal get away with their crime, no matter how heinous. And so we wend our way to the inevitable conclusion, caught in our own complicity, both entranced and repulsed by the ghastly on-screen goings-on.
Thoroughbreds began life as a stage play, and it shows in its rather static settings and verbose script. It’s a very good verbose script, though, and there’s a lot of fun to be had as Lily and Amanda spar their way to patricide, guiding each other around both moral objections and practical considerations. It helps that they’re played by two of the best young actresses currently working — Taylor-Joy has been consistently impressive since she first made a splash in 2015’s The Witch, while Cooke’s flair for the macabre has been evident in Bates Motel (2013 – 17), Ouija (2014), The Limehouse Golem (2016), and more (she also came out of the execrable Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) and Ready Player One (2018) relatively unscathed). The two make delicious work of Finley’s crisp dialogue, and it’s hard to think of anyone currently in the game who could do a better job.
… ready to slay the day.
Ultimately, this isn’t a game-changer, but it is a near-perfect little gem of a film. The comparable movie that keeps presenting itself is John Dahl’s 1994 grim little piece of killer clockwork, The Last Seduction (1994), and if you’re familiar with that, you’ll know setting this effort next to that one is no faint praise. Coolly cynical, dexterously written, and utterly beholden to its own barren ethics, Thoroughbreds is a winner.
India’s answer to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Thugs of Hindostan is a Hindi-language swashbuckling pantomime that boasts all the bells and whistles of the Johnny Depp-starring pentalogy — think a bloated runtime, bombastic action, and a slippery eyeliner-wearing scallywag, though set on a different side of the earth’s hemisphere.
Written and directed by prolific Hindi moviemaker Vijay Krishna Acharya — whose previous effort, Dhoom 3 (2013), went on to become one of the top ten highest-grossing Bollywood films of all time — Thugs has been both hugely hyped and anticipated, the flick (which is currently the most expensive Bollywood movie ever produced, and released just in time for Diwali) promising to deliver bucket-loads of blockbuster thrills in a setting rarely seen in Indian cinema, the high seas. On top of all this, Thugs reunites filmmaker Acharya with Dhoom 3 firecracker Katrina Kaif and star Aamir Khan. It’s also the first time that audiences get to see Khan, as a leading man, share the frame with Bollywood megastar/ icon Amitabh Bachchan, Black (2005), who’s, admittedly, the most celebrated actor working in the world today. Blimey! One can say that there’s a lot riding on the success of Thugs.
‘You really shiver my timber.’
Substituting the tropical Caribbean landscape for the less exotic Eastern Ocean, Thugs of Hindostan takes us back to 18th-century South Asia (round about 1795), where the Indian subcontinent formerly known as Hindostan has been seized by the British East India Company who are expanding their rule and control, headed by ruthless moustache-twirling commander John Clive (Lloyd Owen). Watching her much-loved father, King Mirza Sikander Baig (Ronit Roy), and older brother, murdered right before her very eyes, kid princess Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh) flees the kingdom with lionhearted Indian warrior Khudabaksh Jahazi Azaad (Amitabh Bachchan), who, in hiding, trains the young girl in the art of combat.
Some years later, Khudabaksh returns home to liberate his people, leading an uprising via a band of Indian bandits known as ‘Azaad’ — cutlass-wielding, musket-blazing seafaring ‘thugs.’ Alarmed by the mounting insurrection, John Clive secretly recruits a duplicitous small-time crook/ wannabe ‘white boy’ named Firangi Mallah (Aamir Khan) — an ass who rides around on, um, an ass — to infiltrate and counter the threat, for a hefty fee, of course, Firangi insisting that his old pal Shanichar (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) be freed also, to aid him on his quest.
Running for a whopping 164-minutes, Thugs of Hindostan is, well, a bit of a slog — but, hey, you get a lot of bang for your buck! The action scenes are grand and well staged, though contain more dramatic slow-mos than your typical Michael Bay joint (which probably explains the inflated runtime), Acharya and Co. employing a masala of live-action artistry and VFX magic to craft some big, breathtaking moments, the flick’s horde of on-ground and open-ocean skirmishes becoming increasingly outrageous — it’s clear that filmmakers have rupees to burn and they brazenly set the place on fire, quite literally, and on multiple occasions! Given all its visual razzle-dazzle, i.e. opulent sets and exuberant costumes, it’s no wonder Thugs has been released on various large-format screens, such as IMAX.
Did you hear about that new pirate movie? It’s going to be rated ‘Arr!’
Though based on the best-selling 1839 English novel titled Confessions of a Thug written by novelist Philip Meadows Taylor, Thugs of Hindostan seems to be going through the motions as if ticking boxes off a checklist, the film about as historically accurate as Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995), too. The screenplay and dialogue are pretty pedestrian, while the narrative itself, even with its slew of double-crossings (one to many IMO), comes off as shockingly predictable — think hackneyed Bollywood clichés meshed with all the plucky romanticism seen in other sea-based adventures. And although moviemakers try to drop some not-so-subtle anti-colonial messages into the proceedings, these are drowned out by Thug’s quixotic, over-the-top nature.
When it comes to the music, however, the score succeeds in being both stately and thunderous, while the songs and dance routines are a bit of a hit and miss — and we only get three? C’mon guys?! The highlight, hands down, is the powerfully patriotic ‘Manzoor-e-Khuda,’ composed by Ajay-Atul with vocals by playback artists Shreya Ghoshal, Sunidhi Chauhan, and Sukhwinder Singh; it’s a five-minute ditty that sees the ravishing Kaif, dripping in glitter and gold, navel-shake, the dance choreography mixing contemporary moves with classical Hindi-inspired forms. It’s a dang shame, though, that Kaif’s overall screen-time is about as scanty as her outfits. The other two numbers are not quite as absorbing; ‘Suraiyya,’ performed by lyricist/ songster Vishal Dadlani and playback singer Shreya Ghoshal, is fun and frisky, this sequence featuring some fast-motion foolery, Benny Hill style, as Firangi (disguised as an Englishman) tries to outrun a bunch of British soldiers, whereas ‘Vashmalle,’ a song that focuses on the camaraderie between Bachchan and Khan’s characters, saw almost every male in my audience exit for a bathroom break.
On Bachchan and Khan, their performances are, at most, passable, despite the pair’s bouncy banter and palpable chemistry. Even at age 76, Amitabh Bachchan is still able to seize the screen with his movie-star presence, though suffers here with physical action and dancing due to being clad in too-heavy a costume and under mounds of makeup. Likewise, Khan is playfully droll as the plundering anti-hero Firangi (a kind of spiritual ancestor to Depp’s Captn’ Jack), whose character looks to be a cross between Guns N’ Roses lead guitarist Slash and a young Bob Dylan (a substitute for Keith Richards maybe); still, his antics do get a smidge tiresome. The remainder of the cast, per contra, struggle to keep their heads above water.
It’s all about the booty!
For those with hours at their disposal, wanting to idle the afternoon away, Thugs of Hindostan is disposable enough, this epically ridiculous seagoing entertainer able to do just that, entertain. All the same, anyone after something a little more substantial, thematically and narratively, would probably find more enjoyment in walking the plank, as this one’s about as trite and tacky as the Jolly Roger flag and as satirically silly as the 1982 musical-comedy The Pirate Movie. Funnily enough, even with all its mustiness, there are no parrots or eye-patches in sight. But we do get a cool CG eagle.