Wednesday, December 26, 2018

No Virtue: VICE

Vice is a smug smirk with a burn-it-all-down cynicism fitted to the times. That may make it fleetingly, darkly satisfying from time to time. But it certainly doesn't make it a good movie. As written and directed by Adam McKay, the film is a bleakly jokey docudrama that rehearses a few decades of GOP governance, culminating in the disastrous George W. Bush administration. It does so through the life of one Dick Cheney, a man who has used a lifetime of proximity to power to make the world a worse place every chance he got. He, and his many helpers and collaborators, destabilized the Middle East, expanded the surveillance state, grew the size of the executive branch and judicial department’s unchecked power, loosened environmental regulations, coaxed partisan rancor and propaganda apparatus, ran an oil company, increased inequality, and quickened the advance of global warming. As played by an astonishingly transformed Christian Bale -- his often trim and muscular frame bloated and balding, shrinking in on itself even as he swaggers with confidence of a power-hunger greed monster convinced he's on the winning team -- the movie takes great pains to hit the major points of the biography and controversy sections of his Wikipedia page. He's up to no good, and the movie rattles about with all the energy of someone excitedly repeating someone else's muckraking. At least it has a point of view and digs in hard. No joke that the movie takes a late beat to underline the irony that at a certain point Dick became literally heartless. We see the heart slowly cooling and drying on a surgical table. It's wickedly apt.

Yet overall it is as jittery and anxious as McKay's prior irritating sojourn into recent history, The Big Short. It's wall to wall snarky voice over and chatty collages of contemporaneous pop culture and news detritus. Full of convincing performances doing a mix of mind-boggling transformative impersonations and recognizable faces doing re-enactments, Sam Rockwell does a fine W, while Steve Carell yucks it up three notches from Brick as Rumsfeld, Amy Adams clenches tight for Lynne Cheney, and LisaGay Hamilton and Tyler Perry nicely underplay Condaleeza Rice and Colin Powell. But it never escapes a feeling that it's manic sober Drunk History or an extended collision between the History Channel and SNL. Free floating derision and contempt is a wail of helpless fury at the steady erosion of our culture, a chain of events that led us almost inevitably to our current low point. But a checklist of scandals is an unsatisfying replacement for analysis. Instead of using Bale's transformation for real psychological profiling or vivid melodrama or jangled political despair, it's simply a sloppy, thin, chuckling, hectoring, ain't-this-just-the-way superficial bromide. Only occasionally does it whip around to sting the audience — the last line of the picture, quipped in a credit cookie, is the worst condescension, so you might already be out the door. Elsewhere it assumes you’re outraged already about this recent history or, if not, need only a small nudge of education or reminding to get there. It is an attempted dark comic exorcism that leaves the demons in the plain sight.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Back with the Wind: MARY POPPINS RETURNS

What is there to say about Mary Poppins Returns? It’s been 54 years since we first met Julie Andrews’ practically perfect character. Now we have a long-unneeded sequel to Disney’s greatest live-action film. It is bright and well-intentioned. It’s expertly choreographed, handsomely adorned, sweetly designed, beautifully costumed, attractively photographed, nicely cast, suitably whimsical and filled with music. It’s also never more than half the movie Mary Poppins is. Copying its predecessor, the new film, directed by Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) and scripted by David Magee (Finding Neverland), follows a family man tangled up in cruelties of the banking business while his adorable children are given magical advice by a supernanny who floats in on the London wind. Along the way, through much song and dance and episodic fantasy vignettes, the whole family learns a lesson. This time, the dad is Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), an all-grown-up version of the lad in the first film. His children are delighted by the appearance of this new nanny, and he’s happy to see she’s returned and hardly aged at all. (She’s now Emily Blunt, who is perfectly adequate in the role. If you saw a Mary Poppins like hers in Disney World you’d be impressed by the likeness.) After all these years, Michael and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) have explained away their childhood time with her as the stuff of overactive imagination. They’re about to be reminded otherwise. It’s a charming enough foundation, and the bank problems (facilitated by a suitably villainous banker played by Colin Firth) make a decent clothesline for what little narrative thrust there is, if also a deal more manic and hurry scurry business than the more leisurely 1964 version. But there’s simply little memorable or magical about this new film. In every song (from Marc Shaiman) and sequence, there’s a clear analogue to the original and the new comes up far short each time. A song-and-dance in an animated world? It’s no “Jolly Holiday.” A dance with some city workers? Even with Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton himself) leading the lamplighters, it is no “Step in Time” or “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” A wistful song to comfort the children? It’s no “Feed the Birds.” And so on. I couldn’t help but compare as the movie by its very nature invites it. The whole endeavor is constantly threading instrumental versions of the original songs as underscore to tug on nostalgic heartstrings, a nice tribute but also a constant reminder those songs are better in every way: hummable, emotional, resonant. The new movie is merely, at best, a nearly passable facsimile in moments like a deep dive in the bath or a balloon flight over the park. Yet overall, it has fine notes, but doesn’t know the music. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Superb Heroes: SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE and AQUAMAN

This holiday season has two of the better superhero movies in recent memory to cap off a year that saw just about a superhero movie a month. First is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an animated attempt by screenwriter Phil Lord (LEGO Movie), co-writer/director Rodney Rothman (Letterman’s Late Show), and directors Bob Perschetti and Peter Ramsey (Rise of the Guardians) to make the great web-slinger cinematically fresh again. Part of its sense of novelty is found in its visual style, done in a wild mix of 2D and 3D animation, flat lines rendered in space around digital puppets and a color palate dappled and even slightly smudged and smeared like vivid comics newsprint. (It also judiciously pops on screen occasional narration boxes, thought bubbles, onomatopoeias, and Spidey-sense emanata.) It takes some getting used to, and even after settling in, the style can throw a curve ball into your vision from time to time. The plot, too, zips away from the usual Spidey origins. Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is dead, to begin with, killed trying to stop villainous Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and his scientist collaborator (Kathryn Hahn) from using a massive MacGuffin to open a portal to alternate universes. He almost succeeded. During the brief period it was open, a handful of surprising other Spider-people pulled from the back pages of old comics ended up in the wrong place and now have to get back to their own dimensions. But that’s all story grist to the main origin story for one Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a half-black, half-Puerto Rican teenager bitten by a radioactive spider and stumbling into his hero’s footsteps. It’s a silly, vibrant, heart-felt, exciting story that plunges an instantly endearing new Spider-Man into continuity loop-de-loops. He’s drawn with complicated family ties — his dad (Brian Tyree Henry) a cop; his uncle (Mahershala Ali) living on the edge of legality — and a caught-between-two-worlds bounce from his Brooklyn neighborhood to a private prep school. He’s already living a code-switching double life, and embracing his new wall-sticking, web-slinging persona adds a third. As he’s drawn into a comics commotion in progress — eventually meeting Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), listening to Mary Jane (Zoe Kravitz), and interacting with parallel Spideys including a middle-aged loser Parker from another timeline (Jake Johnson) — he also comes into his own. It all builds quickly and quippingly to a climax freed from the usual tiresome construction, turning kaleidoscopically hallucinatory as the time-space continuum threatens to collapse. Sure, it’s still ultimately just a super-team smacking around a bad guy and his henchmen while a giant glowing doohickey counts down to apocalypse. The bones of it all may not be as unique as its surface pleasures initially suggest, but it’s done in a genuinely visually dazzling style and finds a great new Spider-Man while its at it.


I had an even better time, to my surprise, with Aquaman. It’s a movie that, given the character’s potential for waterlogged nonsense and the DC Cinematic Universe’s ongoing creative underachievement (Wonder Woman aside), seemed an unlikely bet. Turns out it’s a blast. Director James Wan, the Conjuring horror-meister having honed his blockbuster skills with Furious 7, approaches the material with gleaming sincerity. He taps directly into his hero’s mythic proportions, believing in the legend wholeheartedly. Marvel is all about the Everyman (even Thor is played as a normie), but DC is all about Gods and works best when filmmakers remember that. Aquaman may begin the movie as Arthur, semi-heroic superpowered beach townie, but in the amped up muscle body of Jason Momoa and the guitar lick fanfare that accompanies his entrances, it’s clear he’s destined to take up Poseidon’s trident. The story is of pseudo-Shakespearean underwater politics as an exiled heir returns to reclaim his throne. The telling takes that at face value, as an excuse to stage enormous bioluminescent settings and find glittering, bright action adventure there and elsewhere. Arthur is the son of a Maori lighthouse-keeper (Temuera Morrison) and Atlantis royalty (Nicole Kidman). Because the sea kingdom had laws against marrying a landlubber, they reclaimed his mother, banishing her to the deadliest depths. So of course Arthur is salty about his heritage, to the point where he won’t claim his birthright. The throne has fallen to a sniveling half-brother (Patrick Wilson) who is plotting to reunite the aquatic kingdoms (including Dolph Lungren, who commands a regiment of calvary riding enormous seahorses) and launch an all-out war on the land. Concerned Atlantians (like Amber Heard and Willem Dafoe) plot a coup and need Arthur to pull it off. Thus a globetrotting adventure begins for our reluctant hero, for a movie that’s sunny and high-spirited as its moves through red-blooded adventure pulsing with fun and bombast. Each new location is used for bouncy charms and buoyant exposition, zipping along so quickly and easily from plot point to plot point that its two-plus hours sail by. I didn’t even mind the prerequisite extended CG battle that swarms the finale, since Wan has rooted it in character stakes and has generated sufficient visual interest in the world building and creature design. It's fun just to be there. Plus there’s an angry ancient leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews. Can’t go wrong with that. It’s a fantasy of bounteous charms—from a scrambling rooftop chase over a charming Italian city, an octopus playing the drums,  and a glow-in-the-dark fight against nasty crustacean people, to an establishing shot of the Sahara set to the sweet sounds of an original Pitbull rap over an interpolation of Toto’s “Africa.” Here’s an earnest movie that’s equal parts grandeur and goofiness. That’s the sweet spot.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Old Man and the Glum: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT and THE MULE

Out now are two pokey, eccentric movies from auteurs who have grabbed high pulp thriller concepts (hooks on which the marketing has been hung) and drained them of most suspense to turn them into loping meditations on masculine failings. Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built and Clint Eastwood’s The Mule are queasy funny semi-thrillers about bad men and bad decisions, arriving at different and yet strangely sympatico conclusions about their otherwise dissimilar leads. They do bad things (though one’s are much worse than the other’s) and they spend their movies slowly accruing the need to pay for them, and to find someone to take them to their inevitable punishment. The films themselves as often as goofy as they are cynical, and swaddled in their directors’ usual peculiarities and peccadilloes. Is this a recommendation? Of a sort. They’re films for those predisposed to cut their filmmakers some slack, and willing to groove on their usual brand.

Von Trier’s film is about Jack, a serial killer. The man is an architect, but while his dream home goes unbuilt, his murders build in complexity. While we see a progression of vignettes, as bloody and grotesque as they are uncomfortable and even bleakly humorous, Jack (Matt Dillon) speaks to an unseen interlocutor (Bruno Ganz) in voice over. They comment on the events and victims (like Uma Thurman, Riley Keough, and Siobhan Fallon Hogan) on screen, and interrupt the narrative with digressions about philosophy, art, religion, fascism, and the functional form of cathedrals. Jack is casting about for a way to be whole. He could’ve been an artist, a philosopher, or a writer (or a filmmaker? nudge, nudge), but has instead found a grisly, horrifying outlet. He’s searching for a thrill, a kill that’ll fill the hole in his soul. In this way, it makes a cruel mirror image to Von Trier’s superior previous film, Nymphomaniac, which found a woman telling her life story in dialogue with a mysterious man. She, too, was looking to fill a need. She was sex obsessed, a far healthier drive than Jack’s and yet, taken to an addict’s extreme, the pursuit leads her to dark decisions and spirals of shame. Is this pair of films Von Trier commenting on his vision of the world? I am reminded of the cliche “there are two kinds of people...” It’s certainly of a piece with his pictures of cruelty and capriciousness to envision a “Men are Death; Women are Sex” world. But there’s something more self-loathing and self-reflexive about both pictures than those generalizations, and Jack is ultimately about an artist whose bad, frustrated impulses lead to a murder streak as fully detached from reality as his clammy sociopathy can make him. If only he'd built that house instead. (In a striking moment, there’s a montage of Von Trier’s own past films, as if in self-defense, saying his films may be cruel, cynical, misanthropic, and depressed, but who in the audience is actually harmed?) But what to do with someone who is obviously destined to burn in hell, yet still finds himself clinging to the hope that he can climb out? Von Trier has us look and see, though what we’re to make of it is unclear. Its nasty discomfort lingers, and its teetering vacantness does too.

Eastwood’s The Mule is, true to its director, a more straightforward ride. It’s about a failed family man (Clint himself) who put work in the prime position, who seemingly never heard of work-life balance as he’s travelled the country as a prize-winning horticulturist lapping up colleagues admiration while his wife, daughter, and granddaughter (Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, and Taissa Farmiga) miss him at every milestone. Thus, when he finds himself 90 years old, estranged and lonely as the bank puts his farm into foreclosure, he becomes a mule for a drug cartel. At first he is unwittingly ferrying duffel bags of drugs from Texas to Illinois and back again, taking the envelopes of cash and asking no questions. He’s half-naive, half-willfully ignorant. But by the time he figures out what’s up, he just becomes a witting mule instead. The movie is a road trip — there and back and there and back and there and back again — where the old man rarely has problems aside from the occasional gun in the face during contract negotiations with his employers, or a K9 officer he outwits with a slather of Bengay on his hand. He stops at roadside eateries and low-rent hotels, lazily touring the countryside and chatting with locals of all kinds. Sometimes he grumbles about kids these days. Sometimes he tries to reconnect with his family. All in all, a cash infusion seems to do him good. His late-life career change wins him accolades. At one point he’s even invited by the kingpin (Andy Garcia) to party at his Mexican mansion with boozy pushers and bikini girls who fawn all over the old man — a funny embellishment that seems like self-flattery on the part of the star director. The movie lazily pokes along, generating a token amount of suspense from crosscut investigation by officers (Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, and Laurence Fishburne) intent on hunting this mystery mule. It all comes to a head, as it must, with an inevitable karmic collision and a last chance for honesty. Yet Eastwood is more interested in it all as a portrait of a crumbling world economy, in which more and more is expected for less and less. Everyone — the DEA, the banks, the cartel, the insurance companies, and so on — has a boss breathing down their neck demanding more productivity no matter the cost to themselves or societal bonds. No one takes responsibility. It’s middle managers all the way down, while the rich get richer and some people have to work into their 90s to survive. Eastwood, always a more astute political thinker as a filmmaker than in his public persona, generates a movie that’s as sharp as it is eccentric. It’s a most unusual, low-key, elderly movie. Much like his 15:17 to Paris from earlier this year, he’s indulging an almost-aimless travelogue, surrounding interesting ideas in sentimentality and goofy jokes he trusts his casual formalism to carry across. It mostly does.

Motor City: MORTAL ENGINES

Mortal Engines opens with the earth in the Universal logo suddenly stricken with disaster. Sickly purple explosions detonate on every continent. Life as we know it is over. Not since Waterworld has a post-apocalyptic action adventure gotten this quickly to the setup. By the time the movie proper begins, a thousand years have passed. Society has reconstituted itself on wheels. But this is no Mad Max. No, my friends, whole cities are on wheels. These are enormous, rumbling, smoke-belching monstrosities, with entire urban centers perched atop gargantuan engines and even bigger tank tread tires. The big cities, like London, slam across the scraggly European countryside, in pursuit of smaller cities they can harpoon and pull in to strip down for parts and resources. Municipal Darwinism, our villain sneers. A neat colonialism parable, too, especially as the film concerns a plucky multicultural group of rebels angling to take down London before it can execute its dastardly plan to take over the globe at gunpoint. As adapted from Philip Reeve's book by Lord of the Rings’ braintrust Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, and directed by that team's effects, pre-visualisation, and assistant director Christian Rivers, this new feature is a big fantasy adventure full of steampunk swashbuckling and a bevy of stylistic influences. It’s a bit Jackson, yes, but also the Wachowskis, George Lucas, James Cameron, Hayao Miyazaki and Terry Gilliam. It’s stuffed with stentorian exposition, rigorous bric-a-brac design overflowing world-building whimsy, intensely vivid pulp emotion, and large-scale action told in clear, splashy, sequences of thrills, chills, and spills. There is a joy to be found in a movie of this blockbuster appeal following its bliss in opening a new world for us to play around in. Expansive enough to accommodate its visual enormity (mind-boggling cityscapes on the run), but intimate enough to sell its oddball ideas (say, a deranged fatherly zombie terminator that’s both terrifying and, ultimately, some sort of heartbreaking), the movie bursts with ideas and adventure charting a new, yet familiar, course. The tone is pure earnest adventure, completely unembarrassed of its straight-faced jaunt through the sturdiest and broadest blockbuster myth making. It has a scarred orphan (Hera Hilmar) out for revenge, a pretty city boy (Robert Sheehan) about to be converted to the plight of the underclass, a stylish rebel (Jihae) in a flowing red coat and cool little sunglasses, a scene-gnawing villain (Hugo Weaving) out to swallow up anyone who gets in his way. It has a variety of clever set pieces — in a land of blimps, a scuzzy slave market and slimy hodgepodge outlaw towns, a floating oil-rig-turned-prison. And, above all, it has the visceral and imaginative pleasures of those big cities racing each other across ancient irradiated landscapes with a massive bass rumble in the soundtrack. What a blast!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

They Use Your Mind and They Never Give You Credit: ROMA and SUPPORT THE GIRLS

There's a quiet, gentle ironic counterpoint in Roma, a movie with two largely separate plot lines that nonetheless intersect for the simple reason that they're taking place in the same home. We follow the quotidian life of a maid (Yalitza Aparicio) for a well-to-do family in 1970s Mexico City. She does the cleaning and the washing and the cooking and the childcare as a beloved but backgrounded auxiliary member of the family. She's constantly told she's valued, but just as easily snapped at if there are, say, dog droppings in the driveway. Her personal life is a struggle, with a shiftless boyfriend who flees the instant she's pregnant, with no means to grow beyond her current economic and social standing, with an impoverished background, and with her hard job done for pennies, room, and board. And yet she keeps this struggle mostly to herself, cautiously maintaining good relationships with her co-workers and employers, genuinely loving the children in her care, and rarely allowing her turbulent emotional struggles to manifest as anything more than a deep sadness in her eyes. (Aparicio, in her first acting role, is quite good at showing this emotion flashing up and getting pushed back down.) The irony is that the family's troubles are less dramatic, and yet they act them out as melodrama -- a cheating father, shouting wife, wiggly kids, busted cars, screaming matches, and even a smack or two -- erupting in their normal daily routines. By setting these two approaches to life's struggles side by side, writer-director Alfonso Cuaron almost seems to be tiptoeing to the edge of saying only privileged people have the luxury of wallowing in misery. And yet this isn't a cruel movie, partially because it's gooey where it could be sharper, vague sentiment passing off as profound distance. 

Still, though he takes all the characters seriously, he imbues the maid alone with a quiet dignity. It locates the sweetness in the family's genuine love for her, while aware of how quickly she becomes just the hired help when need be. It's small. And yet the movie's an epic in the background even as it's an intimate slice-of-life drama in the foreground. A widescreen, black and white, period piece gleam to the images take in convincing city streets that seem to stretch for miles with every detail of a time and place just so. Cuaron's camera roves like Altman crossed with Lucretia Martel, catching snippets of dialogue in languid specificity, in long sequences as situated on place and deep focus as character or incident. Marvelous scenes like an extended Christmas party, or a trip to the movies, luxuriate in the vivid recreation of a warmly remembered space. Historical events -- an earthquake, a protest -- play out not as momentous reenactments, but as just another thing with which to put up between the other daily dramas. After nearly two decades working in big-budget genre fare (his Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and Gravity are some of the finest soulful spectacle around), Cuaron has painted a more autobiographical vision in his typical virtuoso style. Even so, there's a curious quality that leaves the film, as accomplished as it is, as more of an impression than a statement, a remove from its main character that views her with sympathy without ever quite understanding her. It mistakes depiction for comprehension, a strong silent stereotype for a complicated interiority, a virtue of presence counterbalanced by a deficit of interpersonal imagination. Thus it's a movie full of abundant visual and aural pleasure and emotional distance. 

That's not a problem with 2018's other movie about working class women, Andrew Bujalski's Support the Girls. It may be less high profile, smaller in scale, and lighter in tone. But it's an even more serious effort of moral conscience and class consciousness. That it's somehow both unblinkingly candid about modern working class socioeconomic conditions, and a buoyant, charming workplace comedy filled with indelible characters, is a delight. It's set almost entirely in a small, independent Hooters-style sports bar and grill where the waitresses wear tight shirts and short shorts revealing acres of midriff and legs. The little place is ignominiously nestled in a homogenous suburban Houston sprawl, overseen by a warm, compassionate, no-nonsense manager (Regina Hall). During one eventful day, she tries to wrangle new trainee waitresses, deals with the restaurant's overbearing owner, maneuvers through a crowd of regulars and rowdy, ogling one-timers, and works to keep her longtime employees safe and happy. She knows the establishment isn't the fanciest or classiest, but doesn't look down on the hard work they put into the place. As she charges through a normal, tough day at work (it starts with her crying in her car, before literally putting on a happy face) she's determined to treat her employees like family, loving and supporting but able to be tough when necessary. The picture is a scrappy, expertly multitasking, bighearted, intimate comedy with finely textured notes of drama, spinning a small, tightly knit ensemble through the ups and downs of a day. And putting Hall in the center is its best decision, allowing her sweetness and her toughness to lend her easy authority and warm respect. It's clear why her waitresses love her. And why the grind of it all could get her down.

In Bujalski's style, unassuming humane generosity of spirit, every member of the ensemble emerges as a full formed, fully seen human being with wants and needs and rich emotional complications steadily revealed through action. There’s the woman (Shayna McHayle) who needs to bring her son to work until she can find a sitter. There’s the bubbly cheerful waitress (Haley Lu Richardson) who tries to keep the group's spirits up simply because she radiates kindness that's also it’s own sort of need. There’s the girl (AJ Michalka) who has regrets over how a new prominent tattoo will effect her employment. There's the woman (Jana Kramer) whose sudden financial troubles (to say the least) prompts the manager to throw an emergency car wash fundraiser. There's the grumpy, prejudiced owner (James Le Gros) who is exasperated by the drama. To this, Hall replies, "you want me to tell a group of 20-year-old girls no drama!?!" They will be who they'll be, and are worthy of love and understanding for no reason other than their humanity. In its low-key way, the movie makes an earnest observation about what a difference it makes when someone actually cares, and how difficult it can be to maintain that core goodness when some around take advantage or otherwise bring you down. So bright and clear-eyed, and at once loose and bubbly and totally serious-minded, the movie emerges as a sweet and melancholy day-in-the-life of tenuous minimum wage workers that genuinely sees and supports its characters, centering their stories and prioritizing them. It knows they can only laugh along for so long until they need a good cathartic scream into the void.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Downshifting: BUMBLEBEE

I can't blame Paramount for wanting to scale back and rethink their fading Transformers franchise. After five films from Michael Bay, the movies were inextricable from his auteur personality, for better and worse. Since his agreeably bombastic boy-and-his-car 2007 kickoff, they reliably served up colossal mountains of Bayhem, some of the most spectacular and sensational (quite literally) Hollywood can concoct, but in the service of a tangled nonsense mythology that got harder to parse by the minute. (Not to mention the whiplash plotting, tone-deaf gags, and self-conscious leering that oozed into the worst entries.) In fact, Bay's films became so convoluted in their world-building that I can't honestly tell you if the newest entry, a 1980s-set feature entirely focused on the scrappy yellow Bumblebee, is a prequel, retcon, or (in the immortal words of one David S. Pumpkins) its own thang. Regardless, the robots are part of it, and the opening warfare on planet Cybertron makes clear you're going to have to care about it in order to care about the narrative thrust of the movie that sends a wounded Bumblebee to hide from Decepticons on planet Earth while waiting for his Autobot pals to rescue him. It's familiar territory, but done in a smaller and (slightly) quieter style with director Travis Knight (Laika founder and Kubo and the Two Strings helmer) and screenwriter Christina Hodson out to make it a blatant character-based throwback. That the bulk of the movie is taken up by the cute yellow Transformer voiceless and hiding as a VW bug in the garage of a sad teen mechanic (Hailee Steinfeld) is just evidence this brand of Transformers movie is softer and cuddlier than the clattering junkpiles Bay enjoyed so much. Sure, one or two humans may get liquified and a couple robots are speared and dismembered, but this is trying its hardest to be consistently human-scale, even as its pro-forma plot devices and emotional tricks have only synthetic heart. 

It's not just tone and scale that've been brought down to size for Bumblebee. The design of the robot is rounded and playful, more toy-like in its conception, and with a crisp-lines, simple-movements appeal of a Saturday morning cartoon. He's discovered by the teen as she's dealing with a big emotional trauma -- the sudden death of her beloved father in the recent past, and now her mother (Pamela Adlon) has been seeing a dopey, well-meaning new boyfriend (Stephen Schneider). Now, wouldn't you know it, the young woman and the little Transformer who could just might bond and help each other heal and grow. They might even save the world while they're at it. That's the idea, anyway, as this movie, borrowing heavily from E.T. and The Iron Giant, albeit without the convincing alien character work, creates an agonizingly predictable hiding-the-robot and learning-his-secrets teen dramedy cross-cut with a soldier (John Cena) and a scientist (John Ortiz) hot on the space invader's trail. It's anchored by Steinfeld, as winning as ever, whose charming screen presence can only sell so much of this nonsense. She's as good as in True Grit or Edge of Seventeen, but the material lets her down. It's as technically slick as anything the studios can pay for -- the craftspeople are doing their best -- but there's no there there stylistically. The comedy is flat, the drama is underwritten cliche, and the incessant oldies soundtrack tries its best to gin up nostalgic goodwill (the Guardians of the Galaxy trick for injecting personality in scenes that otherwise wouldn't play as well). It's full of likable character actors allowed a modicum of enjoyable moments -- I particularly liked Cena questioning his commander's trust in an evil robot by pointing out that they call themselves the Decepticons -- but the movie so obviously clunks its way through obvious beats and schematic development, ending at the same fireworks factory these things always do with half the resources and even less to impress. Say what you will about the Bays, but at least they were, at their worst, interestingly bad.