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Bumblebee (2018)

Why haven’t they been making these kind of Transformers movies from the beginning? Bumblebee is a scaled-down, character-driven family film where the bigger moments re about fitting in, finding your sense of self, and keeping your new alien robot friend hidden from your parents. Set in the late 80s, Hailee Steinfeld (Edge of Seventeen) plays a high school senior dreaming of a life beyond her neighborhood and family. The ticket out is a new car, which just happens to be an Autobot from another planet disguised as a VW beetle. Because Bumblbee had his memory wiped from a fight years earlier, he’s very childlike and endearing, and the interaction between the big robot and Steinfeld will rekindle more than a few memories for The Iron Giant, E.T., and other classic “boy and his dog” tales. There’s a real attention to the characters, big and small, that makes this the best Transformers movie. Not everything has to be about the next world-destroying cataclysm. There’s plenty of formidable drama in watching a teen girl navigate the world with an unconventional new friend. Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) graduates to the world of live-action with a terrific feel for the visual parameters and material. It helps that Knight gives his film a sense of scale without sacrificing coherency. The camera prefers wider shots and longer takes so the audience can follow the action. The movie also has a sly sense of humor it knows when it call upon, like a highly enjoyable John Cena who is baffled at his government’s open door policy to evil robot aliens: “They have Decepticon in their name. Is that not a red flag to anyone else?” This is a well-paced, sweetly heartfelt movie with good humor, good characters, and good action. If this is what happens when you strip Michael Bay from the franchise, then lock him up.

Nate’s Grade B+

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Blockers (2018)

Blockers (nee Cock Blockers, and changed on some posters to appear like Rooster-Shape Blockers) is like getting two fairly funny sex comedies in one. We have the perspective of the panicked parents (Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz) who are doing whatever they can to thwart their daughters from seeing through their presumed deflowering pact on prom night. We also have the horny teen perspective from the teen girls (Kaitlyn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon). Each group has their own character arcs and comic set pieces, flunkies and wild supporting characters, and as they criss-cross over the course of one debauched night, lessons will be learned and, more importantly, feel earned. I was steadily impressed with how much Blockers does and does well, chiefly maintaining a sex positive attitude and never supporting the parents in their hysterical, generally sexist alarm. Each parent has to confront their feelings about really letting their daughter grow up, and that relationship leads to a sweet moment for each to acknowledge the error of their ways and grow closer with their child. If this had come out in the 80s or 90s, I’m sure the film would have adopted the parental viewpoint as correct. Hell, if it came out in the 80s, the fact that one of the daughters is gay would have been a source of shock or shame. Today, the father already knows and supports his daughter being a lesbian (he frets she’ll feel pressured to lose her virginity to the wrong sex). Oh, on top of all that, the movie is pretty funny from start to finish thanks to a deep cast of characters. Cena impressed with 2015’s Trainwreck and he shows yet again the promise of his heretofore-untapped comic resources. There is one comic set piece involving blind couple foreplay that feels downright inspired as it develops. Blockers is a raunchy sex comedy with more on its mind than yuks. It’s got a sweet center that allows the characters and their relationships to feel genuine. When you care about the people onscreen, it helps eliminate the sense of downtime.

Nate’s Grade: B

12 Rounds (2009)

This action flick bankrolled by World Wrestling Entertainment is an empty and aggravating movie. Let me list the ways this lamebrain action movie fails and flounders. And to be charitable, I’ll do it in only six rounds of concise action.

Round 1: John Cena is not an actor, like at all. The famous pro wrestler has a face that looks to be chiseled from granite.

Round 2: The movie strains credibility even for an action movie. The villain reappears with no explanation and begins a series of clever traps that must have involved massive man-hours to conceive and put into order, especially with every last variable taken into account like bus schedules.

Round 3: The villain is totally non-threatening in every capacity. He acts like an impish teenager instead of a devilish rogue. At one point, I kid you not, he’s rolling around on a bed while he taunts Cena over the phone, like he’s gabbing to a girlfriend. The fact that this dude is a criminal mastermind makes everybody dumber.

Round 4: The villainous M.O. is a shameless rip-off of Die Hard with a Vengeance. I repeat: a rip-off of the third freaking Die Hard movie, which isn’t terrific anyway. Every little game, every little round, is a puzzle that leads to the next puzzle, and Cena must figure it all out before his time runs out. And it’s all an elaborate ruse to distract the police so that our bad guy can pose as a Federal Reserve moneyman and steal from a bank, more or less just like Die Hard with a Vengeance.

Round 5: The director is Renny Harlin, whose last watch-able movie involved super intelligent psycho killer sharks. His action choreography relies all too heavily on ridiculously tired action tropes, like having Cena leap hundreds of feet from a helicopter to land safely in a rooftop pool. The erratic camerawork does no favors, aping the visual style of better movies. Even Harlin himself has done everything here before and better.

Round 6: The bad guy blames Cena for his girlfriend’s death and thus puts him through this day from hell. He blames Cena instead of blaming the driver of the car that plowed into her, his girlfriend for choosing to run right into the path of an oncoming vehicle and for being complicit in a murderous jewelry heist, or even himself for putting everybody in danger in the first place. His motivation is fairly faulty. He might as well blame the manufacturer of the automobile for lackluster brakes.

I’ll cut it off from there to be merciful. 12 Rounds is a classic example of a cookie-cutter, brainless, preposterous, and un-inventive action movie that typifies the Hollywood assembly line. It’s ludicrous from start to finish and your eyes will glaze over from watching such stolid action scenes without a hint of creative impulse.

Nate’s Grade: D

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