Wednesday, April 24, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - BUMBLEBEE

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

I have enjoyed reviewing the TRANSFORMER movies over the years, mostly due to the fact that they have allowed me to come up with new descriptive terms.

Save for the first one (which I enjoyed), they allowed me to first use the phrases “bucket of monkey vomit”, “as useful as shark nipples”, and “Michael Bay”. The reasons for my dislike of every one of those films (besides the first) was, essentially, that they became too Michael Bay-ish. Yes, he can put together an effective and wonderful action-packed spectacle; ARMAGGEDON and THE ROCK are personal favorites, as is BAD BOYS. Yet at some point, his films became a tad too spectacular, so much so that you have a hard time following the action. Every TRANSFORMERS film seemed determined to out-battle the last, and the crashing metal and exploding machines became redundant and downright careless in execution.

Why on earth would anyone think that an additional entry in the franchise would be necessary? Hasn’t the audience had quite enough? With BUMBLEBEE comes a sudden realization that, holy horse grenades, yes, we did need another TRANSMORMERS film.

Director Travis Knight (KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS), working from a script written by Christina Hodson (of the upcoming genre films BIRDS OF PREY and BATGIRL), makes it so the character of Bumblebee, who launched the first film in the franchise, is possibly the most important of the metallic beasts. Set in 1987, and incorporating music and trends from that era, restarts the series on a simpler note. Gone are the myriad of transforming robots, gone are the battle scenes that were mostly close-up views of shredded aluminum cans being crunched together. Here, you only have to worry about the title character, who has escaped his home planet of Cybertron in an effort to scout out a new home base for his fellow machines, and the two baddies hot on his tail—er, trunk, I suppose.

Young Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, who was the heart and soul of the Cohen Brother’s remake of TRUE GRIT in 2010) finds Bumblebee in a junk yard; he is a beat up, barely drivable VW bug, but the deception does not last long. The relationship which quickly develops between the two is totally attributable to Ms. Steinfeld’s acting ability; she creates chemistry with a robot that she had to imagine during filming, and her work here is spotless. Equally impressive is the dorky Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr), a boy in love with his neighbor. Lendeborg’s delivery is perfect, and his awkward performance is nearly as impressive as hers.

And then there is John Cena; Mr. Cena, of WWE fame, plays “Agent Burns”, a military man hell-bent on Bumblebee’s destruction. What occasionally comes across as a one-note role is given new life by his layered performance. The Outtakes in the Special Features is more like a John Cena comedy fest; who knew the man was actually tat stinkin’ funny? The twinkle you see in his eyes while in the role of Burns belies the seriousness displayed by his character, and it almost becomes distracting. Here’s the thing, though: he knows he is in a TRANSFORMERS movie, and he is determined to have fun in this particular one—just as soon as he’s done playing the hard-laced guy.

The only drawback to the film is all that heavy CGI. It looks well enough, and the effects are quite seamless. And it isn’t nearly as much animation as you are used to from the other films. But there are one or two instances which harken back to those confusing battles; the entire opening sequence is entirely comprised of CGI, and what looks like a marvelously rendered alien planet quickly becomes overwrought in an action sequence which tries to be fluid but can come across as clunky.

This entry in the franchise is a must have on Blu-ray. While it still carries a bit of the Michael Bay-ish mayhem, it also has a strong, beating heart at its center, one which relies more upon its human characters than it does the CGI ones. And that is what marks this as wholly different from the others. That, and the fully realized character of Bumblebee himself, who has more personality than all the other films combined.

Film Grade: B+
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Absolutely

- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: HELLBOY

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on HELLBOY (2019, 120 minutes, R)

The Quick of It -
The hate that filled critics’ blogs towards the new installment of HELLBOY left enough doubt for anyone to feel the need to spend the money on a failed attempt to reboot.  I, typically, dismiss these guys as most don’t give two ‘donkeys’ about the actual film.  They hunt for clicks and turmoil, not offering a fair shake. 

With hope in my heart, I took a seat and prepared for the unknown. 

This relaunch had a new crew and cast to make this work.  Director Neil Marshal (of DOG SOLDIERS and THE DESCENT) took Andrew Cosby’s (of ‘Eureka’ and ‘Haunted’) script and ran with the project.  The initial hype was real.  Everyone wanted this to pull through.  With David Harbour (of ‘Stranger Things’) as Hellboy and Ian McShane (of ‘Deadwood’) as Professor Broom leading the cast in name-power for the primary characters, we have a promising start.  And then we have Milla Jovovich as the lovely baddie.  On the surface, we all saw nothing wrong so far.

Then you had the trailer and costuming of Hellboy.  The trailer was a bit mixed in its message, seemed a flat action story.  There were a lot of moving parts while being simple in what was to happen.  Then, Hellboy appeared more scraggly, similar to the art of Duncan Fegredo.  Not a bad choice.  He wasn’t the Ron Perlman style we had gotten used to, but it worked. 

In the end, after sitting through this two-hour movie, I cannot defend what I saw.  I was bored, was creeping up on the ‘I want to get the heck out of here’ moment, and fighting those yawns near the end.  Yes, there is some grounds for enjoyment for some people.  The creatures and creature-concepts were awesome.  There was no half-stepping here.  The one redeeming quality that I could find.  We also had humor and violence in droves.  But it was not enough to save the tragedy that I experienced.

The script was based on multiple stories - ‘Darkness Calls’, ‘The Wild Hunt’, ‘The Storm and the Fury’, and ‘Hellboy in Mexico’.  That could be the first problem.  The story was choppy and disconnected.  So much to the point, I think the script was fed through a woodchipper to come up with this pile of ‘donkey’ shavings.  Thanks to this, there was no flow.  The placement of humor missed on certain points, feeling out of place, having no connection to the scene or just bad 80’s liners.  There were so many characters introduced and forced into the plot, you start to lose why they are there… and later discover they were not even necessary.

It pains me to say the critics were right.  You might find some redeeming qualities in HELLBOY, but the woodchipper did a number.  Good luck.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - THE MULE

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

I grew up with Clint Eastwood. Not, like, he was my pal or anything—I’m not that old, despite what my thirteen faithful readers may think.

But watching any of his films now is almost a transcendent experience for me. I grew up watching FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, WHERE EAGLES DARE, and my all-time favorite of his, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (and not just because I identified with all three, thank you very much). Mr. Eastwood was The Man With No Name, he was a troubled hero, and he was a stalwart soldier. His characters were imperfect, yet glorious in their victories over the bad guys.

And then he got old. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still glorious when he needs to be. Yet as of late, it has been of a much more subtle variety. While he had some films in his history that didn’t seem to follow the majority of his film path, the vast history of his portrayals seemed to go something like this: cowboys, cops, old men. Yes, I understand that he isn’t as young as he once was, and the selection of characters available to him has dwindled dramatically.

I watch him now, and wish he could still ride a horse or shoot bad guys, but I understand that that isn’t necessarily what Hollywood needs at the moment. So, meet Earl Stone. Earl is an abrasive old man (much like his character in GRAN TORINO) that grows award-winning flowers, a far cry from anything you’d call action. He’s sweet on the ladies and tough on the competition, and he puts family absolutely last in his list of priorities. Through a turn of events which barely explains his motivation, Earl winds up being a mule for a drug cartel. All he does is drive drugs to a hotel, and soon his money problems are a thing of the past. And that past starts to catch up with him in the form of that misbegotten family he shunned for much of his life.

One thing we never get with this film is a moral dilemma; Earl seems to know what he is signing up for, yet doesn’t even stop to consider the ramifications until a dead body is staring him in the face. Mr. Eastwood’s performance is fine; he makes Earl someone we care about even though we probably shouldn’t, but Nick Schnek’s script doesn’t do the character’s motivations any favors. Yes, most of these films about someone swept up in the drug trade all work on the basic premise of money problems motivating the protagonist. But there is always that moral issue, and Earl has his much too late for it to be effective enough.

Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena play DEA agents trying to bust up the cartel’s drug trade in Chicago, and both have a chemistry which belies their new partnership. Their roles are richly written, and it nearly makes Mr. Cooper the Clint Eastwood of this film, albeit the version that could still chase down the bad guys.

There are only two special features included with this release: a ten-minute making-of doc and a Toby Keith music video. And while the doc does give some insight into what it took to film Earl on all of those drug runs (and they use a whole lot of that footage—seriously, they could have shortened the film by ten minutes if it wasn’t doubling as a travelogue for the Midwest), there isn’t nearly enough here to make it stand apart from others.

I sincerely hope that this production does not mark his last performance in front of or behind the camera. Mr. Eastwood is still a masterful storyteller, and he still puts on a helluva performance. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see him on a horse again. Surely there’s a script out there about an abrasive old cowboy…

Film Grade: B
Special Features: D
Blu-ray Necessary: Recommended

- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - AQUAMAN

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

Holy fish nipples—it sure did take a while for the DC Universe to awaken to the juggernaut which is Marvel.

They seemed dead-set on concentrating on a small number of properties, mainly Batman and Superman—so much so that much of their comic’s content went ignored. When Marvel opened the door for them, it was with little known characters, or ones that at least had never gotten the big screen treatment before. With GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and ANT-MAN, the studio proved that you could get away from the mainstream heroes like IRON MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA and still provide the audience with originality and humor.

Not to rain on DC’s successes: Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman with his DARK KNIGHT trilogy was quite successful, but so was Tim Burton’s BATMAN vision back in the day. The hiring of the ultra-serious Zack Snyder to bring SUPERMAN back from hiatus was also profitable, even if it was met with mixed reviews. There was also the “Wonder Woman” TV show back in the 70’s, but that seemed more a weekly show about a damsel-in-distress than it did about a near-goddess. Yes, DC has stumbled a bit along the way—but it has also soared, and not necessarily upon the cape of the Man of Steel.

The WONDER WOMAN movie may have helped rejuvenate a flagging DC Universe, but AQUAMAN has cemented it, made it a relevant reality. The casting of Jason Momoa (“Game of Thrones”) was a brilliant move. He brings an everyman quality to the character of “Arthur”, the reluctant half-breed son of the former Queen of Atlantis (played by the always incredible Nicole Kidman—seriously, I don’t care how old she is, she can still pack a punch, and I am still willing to bear her children). He is called upon to save Atlantis, the place he renounced when his mother was sacrificed to The Trench. But his half-brother Orm has taken the throne, and wants to wage war on the surface world.

One of the several beating hearts of this film are the strong female characters, which you have the aforementioned WONDER WOMAN to thank for. Amber Heard plays Mera with a tough yet amusingly cynical approach; she doesn’t necessarily think that Arthur is cut out to be the king of Atlantis, but she’s willing to kick a whole lotta butt to protect him. And Nicole Kidman as Arthur’s mother proves that even mommies can open up a can of whoop-ass when needed. DC is totally capitalizing on Marvel’s idea to hire first-rate actors to play their heroes, and it pays off wonderfully.

What DC does with AQUAMAN is they took a character that was seen by many in the comic world as being not-so-cool and turned him into an utter badass. But they’ve also begun to steer away from the seriousness of Zack Snyder’s take on the universe and injected a much-needed dose of humor. There are times in this film that lift it above your typical Marvel fare, and much of that is at Arthur/Aquaman’s expense. By being able to poke fun at its lead character, it allows the audience to relax—if not relate more—with its super human character.

There are several special features docs included with this release, and all are interesting enough to check out. The best is the final one, which takes you behind the production and shows you just how many sets they created for this film. Yes, there is a lot of CGI, but not as much as you would expect. And the fact that Mr. Momoa looks to be as much fun on set as he appears to be onscreen is an unexpected bonus.

This is a game changer for DC. And while I do enjoy Mr. Snyder’s work (the Director’s Cut of BATMAN V SUPERMAN is near brilliant, and I’ll always stand by his Director’s Cut of WATCHMEN as one of the best comic book movies ever made), I do hope that the studio sticks by this current trend. No, I don’t have to laugh at the hero, but it helps to be able to laugh because of them.

Film Grade: A-
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Absolutely

- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: SHAZAM!

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on SHAZAM! (2019, 132 minutes, PG-13)

The Quick of It -
To be a kid again.  What a joy it… would… be…

Okay, maybe a bit different now than I remember.  A different ‘age’.  But, seeing that same sense of fun and adventure in SHAZAM! does make me kinda want to get on my bike and ride off to meet with my friends at the park or the mall.  Adulting is not so fun.  And, this is the magic that is embraced in SHAZAM!

I can honestly say that the combination found in these superhero movies of action and comedy was not quite the same here as Marvel has been releasing in redundancy.  Director David F. Sandberg, of LIGHTS OUT and ANNABELLE: CREATION, switches from horror to superheroes, maybe one way to enact a slight change in perspective.  Sandberg puts to film the tale Henry Gayde wrote, a joyous escapade you would find similar to BIG and THE GOONIES.  Both seems new to the big-budget film world but have here a defining contribution to the DCU.  There is plenty of humor but a resounding sense of childhood wonder and the love a family can provide makes this work.

Zachery Levi, of ‘Chuck’, TANGLED, and THOR: THE DARK WORLD, does a fine job, embracing his Chuck-side again.  I will say after having watched ‘Chuck’ long ago, I had a hard time seeing him in that inflated suit with glowsticks.  I have been spoiled with DC TV shows having more grounded super-suits.  The kid crew, led by Jack Dylan Grazer as his moral and superhero compass Freddy Freeman, holds up well as a central character, demanding a lot to make the theme authentic.  Kid actors can really complicate a story with just subtle things, but we do not see much of it here throughout the story.

SHAZAM! is an origin story having the Billy Batson, a boy put into foster care after losing his mother in a crowd.  He faces of against Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, played by the busy and remarkable character actor Mark Strong, who was previously rejected as the inheritor of the Shazam power.  The stories pacing shows what DC does best, building a well-rounded villain.  You quickly become sympathetic and understand why he goes down this dark path.  Billy must work through his struggle, trying to find his mother while learning to survive as a near-homeless, angry boy who is gifted with powers.

The lighthearted feel makes this a bridge between the childhoods of yesteryear and today.  I think that is the greatest gift this film offers, to see the same, simple desires we had as children reach the newer generation that is submerged in technology.  Magic still exists.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, April 3, 2019


‘Blu-ray or Bust’


For the last year, I have complained about many, many things. I’m old, so I’m allowed.

But the one constant gripe I have is when it comes to the length of animated films. (Okay, that, and the fact that women look at me like I have a fourth nipple growing on my forehead.) But back in my day, animated films clocked in at less than an hour-and-a-half. Especially Disney films; the average length of most of their classics is right around the 1:28 mark. That was always plenty of time to tell a story and, most importantly, keep a kid entertained.

Yet, you cannot help but wonder if the age of home video hasn’t turned modern technology into this century’s version of a babysitter. The movies have gotten much longer, and I cannot attest to whether the films can keep a child’s attention for a full two hours. All I have to go on is my own brain, which, while still held captive by puberty, has aged a bit.

I can tell you that the nearly two hour-long RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET is entertaining at times, but that is its inherent problem: it only works in fits and starts. There are some thrilling moments, and a few funny ones, but it doesn’t justify the run time. John C. Reilly returns as Wreck-It Ralph, the “bad guy” of an arcade game. This time around, he and bestie Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) must venture into the internet to retrieve the steering wheel to Vanellope’s console video game, or she may become homeless. There are several nods to that vast digital world in the form of many familiar sites. This is like the internet version of READY PLAYER ONE, so far as the name dropping goes.

But ultimately the heavy-handed message sinks this film. Disney used to be much more elegant and sly about their messages to kids, but this one—about how friendships can change—seems overlong and stretched way thin. I get that Ralph pretty much blunders through everything, but didn’t we already cover this territory in one of the TOY STORY films? Much of this seems (and feels) redundant, as if Ralph and Vanellope’s predictable and by-the-numbers story will make the message easier to grasp.

Then there is the latest SPIDER-MAN movie. At a runtime even longer than Ralph’s, it does something the other can’t quite do: it entertains on a consistent basis while encouraging the viewer to believe in themselves. There is a reason—several of them, really—this won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and not the heavy-handed (pun TOTALLY intended) RALPH. In this iteration of the Spider-man universe, Peter Parker dies. Not really a spoiler, so don’t think I gave anything away. His death leaves a void, and stepping tentatively into his webbed shoes is young Miles Morales (Shameik Moore of DOPE fame). Miles has no clue what he is doing; thankfully, when the original Spider-man was killed trying to stop Kingpin’s Super Collider from ripping a hole in the space-time continuum, the machine brought Spider-people from other dimensions into his own.

So, Miles gets help from a black and white Noir Spider-man, a Spider-Gwen, a robot, a pig, and a different, down-on-his-luck Peter Parker. Part of the brilliance on display is the blend of animation styles, and the constant love the filmmakers throw to the comic books which birthed these characters. Spider-Ham looks and acts like a Looney Tunes character, the robot-like anime, etc. But it goes far beyond that; the textures in Mile’s face herald back to the comics themselves, and is a wonderful detail that continuously impresses.

Next up for Disney’s Animation Studio is another TOY STORY sequel; after the third one, I’m not sure why this one is necessary, but I’ll watch it anyways. Yet therein lies a problem: each TOY film has been longer than the last, and the first clocked in at eighty-one minutes. At some point, parents may want to teach their kids how to use the “pause” button on the remote. Let them go outside and use their own imagination for a bit.



Special Features: (there were sooo manyyyy)
Blu-ray necessary: RALPH no, SPIDER absolutely

-- T.S. Kummelman