Travis Knight’s lively and kid-friendly holiday sci-fi Bumblebee has a lot going for it. Hailee Steinfeld, a southern Cali teen living in the 80’s, is attempting to separate from childhood and parental rules. She’s a skilled car mechanic who hangs out at a junkyard, dreaming of independence. One day she stumbles across a cute yellow VW bug that’s dusty and non-functioning and presto! her chance to put her skills to work and be independent with her own wheels. Not long after she brings it to new life, she realises its inhabited by an alien from outer space – a Transformer! She and Bumblebee form a sweet bond of friendship and mutual support, just as her problems at home mount. She now has a friend, a confidant and a purpose. He’s come to earth on Optimus Prime’s command to squelch an invasion by evil Transformers. This is an old-fashioned stop-motion animation treat, its lighthearted, an easy to navigate adventure and coming of age story aimed at young people. Lots of thrills and special moments touching on friendship, familial love, growing up and experiencing what the world – and space – have to offer. The 80’s soundtrack is awesome, dude.
Shoplifters from Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda is a spare and stunning film that is also a shock to the system. Told brutally plainly, it follows an impoverished family living in a hut in a Japanese city. The children are taught from the time they can walk how to steal in order to eat, the women are or have been in the sex industry, the older men don’t do much but get high. Each must strategise moment to moment just to stay alive and function and avoid arrest. The kicker is that none of them are related; they chose to be together in an alternative living arrangement dating back generations. They take in lost souls, a toddler whose parents pay no attention to him, stray animals, those who need help and acceptance. Kore-eda has no end of intimate moments for us from experiencing a miraculous day at the seaside to burying a family member in the pond behind their place. These are people driven by the love of life, ironically. Shoplifters is a revelation, its heartwarming, profound and devastating.
Jennifer Lopez who celebrates her fiftieth birthday this year stars in Second Act a poor-girl-makes-good fairy tale, bearing a strong resemblance to the 80’s hit Working Girl with Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver. A Queens woman realises it’s tough to get ahead without a college degree after quitting her long-term grocery store job. Her loving godson creates a fake online identity for her claiming she studied at Harvard and worked for the Peace Crops; she’s horrified but goes along with it. She gets a big job at a cosmetics firm and makes a great impression. Through the sheer force of her personality, a strong work ethic, street smarts and ability to learn fast she rises through the ranks. Her work rival, played by Vanessa Hudgens, is determined to bring her down until they discover a secret from her past and then the worst thing happens. Its pure escapism, its predictable and thin, but Lopez is a charmer. That’s the film’s strength.
Susanne Bier’s dystopian horror Bird Box is an ambitious and fascinating mashup of A Quiet Place, Lord of the Flies, Deliverance, Children of Men and I Am Legend that finds Sandra Bullock flashing back and forth in time at a hell of a clip. She’s in the midst of a deadly global plague that causes people to randomly commit suicide. The key to survival is not looking at others because the malaise transfers via eye contact; it could be bio warfare or naturally occurring, but there’s no time to investigate. A stellar group (Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Jackie Weaver, Tom Holland, Danielle Macdonald, BD Wong and someone called Machine Gun Kelly) holes up in a covered house hoping for the best. The hunt for food puts them at risk, and new lovers (Bullock and Rhodes) escape with her children to the woods to meet their fates. Bullock’s character is new for her, a deadly serious survivor, her voice hoarsened and flattened by the traumas she’s experienced and her ultimate transformation into a warrior. She’s angry and driven to survive, knowing full well she and her charges may not. Bullock’s perf is the most interesting part of this familiar film. On Netflix.
Opening Christmas Day is Barry Jenkin’s disarming follow-up to his Oscar behemoth Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the James Baldwin 1974 novel about the lives of African Americans in Manhattan. Keeping his singular pastoral, lyrical style, Jenkins looks at a young black woman in the seventies whose pregnancy brings out the best and the worst in those she loves. Scarborough’s’ Stephan James stars as the young father who is sent to prison for something he didn’t do. He learns there that he’s going to a father in one of the most poignant movie scenes this year. KiKi Layne who plays the young mother is a study in contrasts, tentative but strong minded as she moves through this unusual circumstance. Jenkins plays it like an intimate dance of the elements, wind, sun and rain that you feel and hear in spectacular ways. These incredible moments rise above the noise of ordinary life and bring the magic. Jenkins glorious musical score is transformative, hitting emotional and spiritual notes that open scenes to directly to the heart.
Christian Bale’s bloated, freckled and out for himself in Vice as former US Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most powerful and unpopular VPs in history. He’d worked with Richard Nixon and had the rep as an ambitious sycophant, he doted on corporate donors and reminds us strongly of you-know-who with his Republican right-wing intolerance. One of the first things he did in the Ronald Reagan White House was remove the solar panels installed by forward thinking Jimmy Carter and cozy up to the Koch brothers. Later he formed Halliburton. Look it up. He was encouraged by his single-minded wife Lynne (Amy Adams) and found himself compromised as a Republican against homosexuals when his daughter came out. There’s much to learn in the film – its crammed with facts. Adam McKay’s film gets the points across but it’s a cool, distant experience resulting in a sharp, cut and dried list of bad deeds by a deeply flawed man. Bale is fabulous, disappearing entirely into the man.
“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” thus spake the legendary slapstick comedy team Laurel and Hardy – an exception to the rule that two people working in close quarters in the heat of Hollywood can’t get along. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy – played by a slim Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly – were friends who hit the big time in the early days of the burgeoning film industry and kept at it for decades. They made their first film together in 1926 and never looked back. Jon S. Baird’s bittersweet comedy biopic Stan & Ollie catches up with them as they embark on a final concert tour in England where their quiet affection for one another becomes touchingly clear. Their sincerity makes them rather rare figures in the world of movie stars, and there is a kind of melancholy that lingers about. They know they’re reaching the end of the road professionally and you know they are going to miss it – and each other. Its charming and fun, as they re-enact the old routines for a new generation of film goers. A fitting tribute to an underappreciated couple of knockabout comic ninjas.
Felicity Jones plays Ruth Bader Ginsburg – or RBG as she is known in memes –in Mimi Leder’s lukewarm biopic On the Basis of Sex. It’s a strange choice for a title for a story of a supremely gifted legal mind who overcame pre-feminist misogyny in the 40’s and 50’s and went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice with a brilliant legacy of accomplishments. She helped make the US a better place for women, so it’s a shame that her singular story is given the Hallmark treatment, conventional beats, swelling orchestral telegraphing; she deserves better. Ginsberg and her husband played by Armie Hammer broke ground as a couple. He stopped working to be at home with the children to allow her to flourish in her career supporting her every step of the way. Jones’ delicacy of features and body, and gentle delivery reflect RBG’s – an interesting contrast to her muscular mind – but little personal information is revealed. This is a pure popcorn, and I’d advise you see the excellent doc RBG instead.
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