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A Review of Game of Thrones Season Eight, Episode One: “Winterfell”

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Image source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/ozkHwFG91AI/maxresdefault.jpg

****This article is long and full of spoilers. Proceed with caution****

After a two-year long fevered wait, audiences on April 14th were treated a somewhat underwhelming but no less entertaining return to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros of the hit TV show Game of Thrones. This first episode of the final eight season, directed by David Nutter, was thematically focused on setting the stage for conflicts to come later in the season while thematically calling back to the first episode which debuted nine years ago. We were treated to several long-anticipated reunions and some new questions were raised about the nature about the show’s long-anticipated ending. However, for a show famous for its bloodiness and willingness to kill off its main characters, only one minor character was sacrificed for this season’s opening episode.

The show opened on a young boy running through the Winterfell village and climbing up a tree to get a better view of the incoming Targaryen army led by Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). This the first of several deliberate circular callbacks to the first episode “Winter is Coming” which premiered in 2011, when Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), then a young rebellious girl from a noble family, scaled a wagon to witness the entourage of King Robert Baratheon arriving. We, the audience, are then subsequently treated a reunion between Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Jon which comes off as heartfelt but surprisingly distant and emotionless. What little emotion there is in the scene is abruptly interrupted by Bran’s declaration that the wall has fallen and that one of Dany’s dragons, Viserion, has been captured and zombified by the Night King. We are also introduced to what will surely be one of the central conflicts of Season Eight: the relationship between Sansa Stark and Dany which could best be described amid wintry conditions as “icy.” Sansa is mistrustful of Dany, a foreign imposter, and resentful of Jon for having seemingly thrown away the title of King in the North for love.

The episode’s theme of setup by showing the unrest of the Northern lords who are (probably rightfully) outraged about their Jon’s acquiescence to Dany. In a brief sequence moment, we see a young lord, Ned Umber, sent to retrieve the remains of his people from his castle The Last Hearth which lies just south of The Wall. We are then treated a philosophical moment between the show’s great thinkers as Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Varys (Conleth Hill), and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) muse on death, old age, and the innocent of youth. The following sequence was one of silliness, which saw Dany and Jon traipse about the north riding on the back of dragons, in a scene reminiscent of How to Train Your Dragon with all the soppy steamy romance attached. They land at a waterfall and Dany declares that together that could stay there alone forever. This is a second prominent callback, this time to Jon’s relationship with Ygritte in Season Three, Episode Five “Kissed by Fire” where Ygritte asks Jon, alone in a cave, to run away and live apart from society forever.

The show then moves to King’s Landing and Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady) who, as ever, is hell-bent on a quest for revenge against her enemies. In her hour of great need, she has turned to Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) and the mercenary Golden Company army. Her plan is to wait for the Northern armies and the undead army to destroy each other and then to seize and kill of whatever remains. Having cast off her final moral compass in her brother Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Cersei is now unburdened by any desire other than to protect her unborn baby and to destroy her enemies even if it means having distasteful sex with Euron. In a brief scene, the show makes room for a widely-celebrated rescue of Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) from Euron’s clutches by her PTSD-affected brother Theon (Alfie Allen). We are reunited with Bronn (Jerome Flynn), who is partaking in the pleasures of a brothel. In the episode’s humorous callback, we hear from one of the prostitutes that a ginger solider, heavily implied to be Ed Sheeran’s infamous Lannister solider, has been severely burned in the loot train attack of Season Seven. Given the negative publicity against Game of Thrones over his portrayal, his unfortunate fate is likely to be well received the Thrones fandom. However, Bronn is interrupted in his brothel exploits by the Qyburn, the queen’s personal hand, to establish his season’s story arc: Bronn is tasked with finding and killing Jaime and Tyrion in the North, his former employers and erstwhile friends.

We return to Winterfell to connect with Samwell “Sam” Tarly (Jon Bradley) who as usual is ensconced in the library. He is interrupted by Dany and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), who have come to thank him personally for curing Jorah of Greyscale in Season Seven. But the Samwell appreciation goes horribly awry when Dany informs him she executed his father and brother for not bending the knee following the loot train attack. Sam runs out of the library deeply distraught, only to run into Bran who informs him that the time has come to inform Jon of his true parentage. We follow Sam to the crypts where he meets with Jon, but the reunion is cut short as Sam – in one of the most-anticipated scenes of Game of Thrones – informs Jon of his actual parents, Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, whose bloodline gives him a more legitimate connection and right to the Iron Throne than Dany.

The episode reaches its conclusion in the Last Hearth castle. We meet up with the remnants of the Brotherhood without Banners and the Night’s Watch, who have fled the broken wall for Winterfell. However, in the bowels of the castle they make a grisly discovery: poor young Ned Umber has been impaled against the wall amidst the ritual spiral of the Night King and his undead army. In a doubly-chilling scene, Brotherhood and Night’s Watch realize they are cut off from Winterfell by the undead army. While they stand talking, the corpse of Ned Umber rises from the dead as a wight and begins to shriek and attack them. The wight is quickly set ablaze without casualties but not before everyone including the audience is deeply disturbed by the gravitas of the situation and the upcoming conflict. The episode ends with Jaime Lannister arriving on horseback to join the fight against the undead army. However, he is greeted first by Bran who, all the way back in Season One, was crippled by Jaime after being pushed from a tower for witnessing his incestuous relationship with Cersei. The camera pans over Jaime as emotions of shock and guilt play across his face before the episode cuts to black.

The primary role of “Winterfell” was to set the stage for the upcoming season. It did so in well-executed but unspectacular fashion. By Game of Thrones standards, it ranks among the tamest episodes, with only one-character death and three naked women, a considerable branching-out for a show which has staked its reputation and fame on having both in large amount. The episode hints at what is to come and served mostly as an extended catch-up and trailer for bigger and better battles and the final, epic conclusion. The episode will not live long in the memory, but it serves as a placeholder which successfully whets the appetite of fans to tune in, next week, for the second of the final six episodes of this decade-spanning, generation-defining TV show.

Avengers: Endgame Review

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Avengers: Endgame is a wild, ungainly, imperfect mess of a movie. It’s a film that, in all likelihood, will be picked apart in the days and weeks to come. It’s way too long, for one thing, and there are certain plot points that are rushed and characters that are shafted and mistakes that were made.

But I don’t care, because I loved that beautiful mess. It made me feel. It made me gasp. It made me cry. It made me laugh, out loud, and often, and at full volume. It set out to do something, and by God, it actually mostly managed to accomplish just that. More than that, though, Avengers: Endgame was something I kind of wasn’t expecting: an ENDING. This is a movie that actually earns its title by clearly and definitively closing the chapter on a number of things that we’ve been watching for 11 years.

Actually, let’s start there, because that’s kind of this film’s greatest strength and its most glaring weakness. Because instead of spending its entire runtime teasing the future (as a few of these movies have been guilty of), the film spends most of its time celebrating the past. This is understandable, and at times, joyous (not to reveal anything, but the way this film uses older footage is downright inspired on a Forrest Gumpian level). However, it does mean that the film never truly eeks out its own identity, and at times can feel like a 3 hour exercise in, “Hey, remember this thing?” Now don’t get me wrong; it WORKS. I was having an absolute blast sitting there and going, “Why yes, I DO remember that thing!” And saying it could’ve or should’ve been more than what it is feels…ungrateful, somehow. But it could’ve/should’ve? Maybe?

I don’t know. But, for whatever else, this is it, and they DID it. There are callbacks ahoy, and almost every character who’s ever been in any of these damn movies pops up at one point or another (and I really do mean almost everyone; it has to be at least double the cast of Infinity War, which itself was stuffed to the brim), but miraculously enough, the film finds that balance that Thanos was so desperate for. Everyone feels like they get their moment to shine. More than that, the film frequently lets itself slow down, something Infinity War occasionally struggled with. There are quiet, contemplative scenes in this film, real character driven moments that have genuine heart to them. I can honestly say that certain things choked me up.

And the film is so damn fun. The quips are at their best: mostly non-distracting and hella funny. The situations are inventive and unpredictable, mostly. The visuals are frequently stunning (PLEAAAASE do not ruin this film by seeing it in 3D. It’s dark enough already, and 3D is generally awful. Trust me, the spectacle doesn’t need it). Not since Return of the King have we had a 3 hour film this shockingly economical. It’s genuinely tough to imagine when a good time for a bathroom break would be.

It’s been 11 years. 22 movies, the worst of which was “meh.” We are at the end of one of the grandest cinematic experiments of all time, the success of which has yet to be matched (weirdly, the only “cinematic universe” that’s come close is the Conjuring-verse, and even that’s pretty hit-or-miss). Maybe I’ll sour on this film, though I hope I don’t. Because right now, I’m very happy with where we are.

We’ll be back in the MCU soon enough. But for now, we can rest. It’s over. And it worked. I can’t believe it worked.

Dying to Revive, Journey Just Starts. 走过涅槃重生,人生才始启程。

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Zhang performs her first solo recital, “Dying to Revive”, accompanied by pianist Andrew Stuart. Picture Credit: Julian Fernandez

English Version:

On the night of April 3, 2019, with endless applause and cheers, I closed my first solo recital ever in my life with great success. “Dying to Revive.” It was an unforgettable night.

This is a recital about “death and life.” I died over and over again in the songs, and I sang my own eulogy. After my dance in this dark hell, I started a journey of revival. As I finished singing the last lyrics from Night of the Sixth Magnitude Star, “After being reborn, I’ll shine on tomorrow,” I finally reached new life. Just as shown on the poster, the first row of black and white photos means “death,” and in the second row there’s a movement from holding nothing to receiving life.

After the concert, when I saw my friends all waiting so long in line to hug me and send me good wishes, I experienced a happiness and sense of achievement that I’d never felt before. I appreciate my voice teacher Jennifer Blades, piano accompanist Andrew Stewart, and my friend Elysia Hempel for helping me make this recital possible, and I’m also so thankful for all of my friends who came to support me. The time you spend on roses is what makes roses so special.

I also want to appreciate all of my hard work behind the stage. I couldn’t believe I learned three new pieces in this half semester, sang them all, and gave a great performance. I think I deserve that night and all of the wishes and applause. But I know there’s still a long way to go.

One of my friends told me, “You are shining when chasing your dream step by step.”

Being prepared and not nervous is the key to everything, and I felt this so strongly on that night. It felt so good for everything to be under control and turn out better than expected. After the performance, a friend said that I have magic, that my songs have a serene power which draws people into their aura. I heard that one of my friends cried halfway through the concert, and many other people told me that my songs made them want to cry at some point. Another friend said that he sank into real darkness, but saw a shimmering light. I never knew that my voice could be that powerful. Aside from all of my surprise, I was very glad that the audience could feel my emotions from my songs.

As a performer, honestly I could not feel the aura and enjoy myself during the performance because I need to think about how to deal with the next place in which I often make mistakes and how to pronounce the lyrics better and control my breath. But when I watched the video the day after, surprisingly, I felt like I was watching another person’s performance, and I became a member of the audience, and I was moved by that singer’s songs. That was the best feeling that from the audience’s perspective; I could feel what I wanted to show, and I felt so moved.

From my conversations with my audience members afterward, surprisingly, all of them said that their favorite song was the Chinese song, Da Yu (Big Fish). Something I wondered about was that most of them didn’t understand the lyrics, but still loved it. Then I asked my professor and she said, “Because this language and this song is part of you.” Suddenly, a conversation that I had with a musician came to my mind. I asked him which was more important: melody or lyrics. I used to think melody was more important, but he said that it’s lyrics. Although the audience may not understand the lyrics, as performers, the goal is to show what we’ve understood. Melody is a tool to help present the lyrics. When I first heard his words, I was surprised but I didn’t understand much. Finally I proved what he said exactly in my own performance.

Zhang and Hempel perform their duet, accompanied by pianist Andrew Stuart, during Zang’s recital. Picture Credit: Julian Fernandez

I die over and over again in the songs, but in real life, my journey has just started.

Coincidently, last Friday was the Tomb Sweeping Festival in China. Showing “death and life” in this concert gave me more thoughts about my own life. Because I’m still alive, I can do the things I love, and make everything possible.

Soon, I’ll start to volunteer at a hospice. At first, I was kind of afraid of this work, but gradually I realized that since I’m so into “life” and “death”, by doing this special job, I might grow and have a deeper understanding of life and death, though the job will be heavy.

Recently, I read a quote from people who work in this field: “You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but to live until you die.” Till the last breath, life is always an important existence. And this job gives people strength to live. I recalled a sentence, “We should not spend too much time mourning the death. Instead, we should spend more strength to confront our lives. As long as we exist, Death has not arrived; when Death arrives, we are not existing anymore.” As long as there’s still breath, it is the biggest affront to death. Although we are all going to compromise in the end.

I remember that after my grandfather passed away, in front of the crematory’s fire door. My mother said to me that no matter how hard life is and how much you feel that you can’t continue, you can come to see the real farewell. Then you will feel that all the things you thought you cannot endure are not a big deal anymore. It’s everyone’s last station, a little box.

A few days ago I read a sentence: “People die three times in their lives. The first time is biological death; the second time is one’s funeral, which is the sociological death; the third time is being forgotten by the last person who remembered them, and that is the real death.” Thinking this way, my grandfather has still not left me, and people who I’m going to serve will also not disappear, because of being remembered by their loved ones.

After the journey from death to life, I’m just starting on my road.

BY YUWAN ZHANG

TRANSLATED WITH THE HELP OF JULIAN FERNANDEZ

Chinese Version:

Poster for Zhang’s recital created by herself.

 

2019年4月3日晚,伴随着掌声四起,我成功地谢幕了人生中第一场个人演唱会。“涅槃重生”,如此难忘的一个夜晚。

这是一场关于“生与死”的演唱会。我在歌曲中一次又一次地死去,唱着给自己的悼词。随着在地狱黑暗里的舞蹈,我开启了重生之旅。在唱完六等星之夜里的“重新转生后,相信明天一定会熠熠生辉”,我终于走向新生。正如海报上,第一排的黑白代表着死亡,第二排从一无所有,到获得生命。

演唱会后,看着大家排着队来拥抱我时,感受到了前所未有的欣喜。感恩我的老师Jennifer Blades,钢琴家Andrew Stewart和我的朋友Elysia Hempel的帮助让这场演出变成可能,也感谢所有到场支持的朋友们。正是你们花在玫瑰身上的时间,让玫瑰如此珍贵。

也很感谢一直努力的自己。这学期新接触三首曲目,依旧成功地呈现了这一晚精彩的汇演。我的努力和付出值得所有的掌声和祝福,但明白还有很长的路要走。

朋友对我说,“一步一步追寻梦想的你,是闪闪发光的”。

胸有成竹,在舞台上的胜券在握,以及结果的超乎预期。整场演出最强烈的感受是,“准备充分和保持冷静是成功的关键”。演出后有朋友说,我的歌能有让人安静,并且沉浸在我营造的意境里的力量,那是我的魔法。听说一名朋友在演唱会不到一半时就已泪流满面,也有很多人说,我的歌让他们有时候特别想哭。有人也告诉我,他在我的歌里能沉浸在真正的黑暗里,以及看到黑暗里的光芒。从未曾想象过自己的歌声能有这样的力量;惊讶之余,也很开心听众能从歌里感受到我的情感。

作为歌者,在演出时其实无法完全投入享受意境,因为需要思考下一个易错点该如何渡过,以及歌词该如何更好地发音等等。但第二天当我看自己的录像时,竟奇迹般感觉像在看另一个人的表演;而自己变成了一个观众,被那位歌者的歌曲感动着。能从观众的角度感受到我想传达的,并且打动自己,是最好的结果。

在观众们的反馈中发现,所有的人都千篇一律最喜欢我的中文歌《大鱼》。出乎意料般,因为他们都并不理解歌词,却依旧喜欢这首歌。之后问老师,她说,“Because this language and this song is part of you.”想起之前和一位音乐家的谈话。我问他,曲调和歌词,哪一个更重要。我曾经认为曲调更加重要,但他的回答是歌词更重要。即使听众无法理解歌词,但若表演者能够通过自己的理解和表演来将歌词的情感传达给听众,这就是目标;而曲调是一种辅助表达歌词的方法。当时对他的这番言论挺新奇,这次终于在自己的歌里得到印证。

我在歌曲中一次又一次地死去,但在真正的人生里,我才始启程。

巧合一般,上周五正值中国清明节,这场演唱会通过“生与死”的主题,也让我对自己的生命也有了更多的思考。因为我还活着,才可以做喜欢的事,让一切变成可能。

不久后会在一家临终服务中心进行志愿者服务。最开始对这项服务有些畏惧,但是慢慢想开后,觉得既然对“生”和“死”很感兴趣,通过这份特殊的工作,也许能让我成长,对生死有更深的理解,即使如此沉重。

最近读到一段关于这个职业的从业者的自白。“You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but to live until you die.  ” 即使在生命的最后一刻,也是重要的存在。而这份职业就是给予人们活着的勇气。想起一段话,“不应用太多的时间去凭吊死神,而应用更多的勇气去直面人生。因为我们存在时死神不会降临,等到死神光临时,我们又不复存在了。” 只要一息尚存,就是对死亡最大的蔑视,即使我们终将走向妥协.

想起爷爷去世后,火葬场的炉门前。妈妈对我说,当你觉得生活多么困难,无法继续走下去时,就来火葬场看一看生离死别吧。你就会觉得一切放得下的,放不下的,都不是事了。这都是每个人最后的归属,一个小盒子。

前几天读过一段话,“人的一生有三次死亡:第一次是生物学死亡, 第二次是葬礼,被宣告社会性死亡,第三次便是被最后一个记得其存在的人遗忘,那时才是真正的死亡”。这样想着,爷爷也并没有离我远去;我即将服务的人们也因为被思念着,而不会消逝。

走过涅槃重生,人生才始启程。

BY YUWAN ZHANG

Captain Marvel Review

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Picture Source: refinery29.com

I’m still in awe of what Marvel has managed to do over the last decade. When I was little, I used to ask my parents what it was like watching Star Wars for the first time, living through that historic moment in film. And now, I can say I’m living through something like that; a point after which everything will be different. This level of interconnected storytelling, while commonplace in comic books, is still an extraordinary novelty in movies. It shouldn’t have worked. That it did is a miracle.

Still, they can’t all be winners. Every once in a while, you’re going to slip up. Even so, I was very excited for Captain Marvel for a number of reasons. Marvel had gotten Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the team behind the wonderful Half Nelson and Sugar, to helm the project. They’d gotten an all-star cast, led by Oscar-winner Brie Larson. Old favorites Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg were returning! There was gonna be a war between two interstellar races from the comics! Shape shifting aliens! It was gonna be set in the 90s! What could go wrong?

Already, there are articles appearing comparing this film to its closest apparent DCEU counterpart, Wonder Woman. It’s a cheap and easy comparison to make (take the two recent female-led superhero movies and pit them against each other!), but a quick point that I think highlights my issues with Captain Marvel is this: Wonder Woman was a focused movie. It knew exactly what it wanted to say narratively and it did so. It used its period-piece trappings to make a broader, empathetic point about gender struggles both then and now. But, above all else, the main character was extraordinary: a complex, multi-dimensional person who was an absolute joy to spend time with for two hours. I believed in Wonder Woman because I believed in Wonder Woman.

Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is all over the fucking place. It’s a space opera-turned 90s throwback movie-turned buddy cop romp-turned immigrant parable-turned CGI slugfest. To be clear, there are good movies that have incorporated all of these elements before. This is not one of them. There’s no clear narrative through line whatsoever. These scenes never cohese into a whole, and as such, it feels like they’re actively working against each other.

Part of this is the almost overwhelming lack of visual style. Remember how in Thor: Ragnarok, or the Captain America movies, or the first two Avengers, or Black Panther, you could just tell instantly who was directing the films? That immediate, clear authorial voice? That is completely absent here, and it’s a damn shame. One of Marvel’s most admirable qualities is their willingness to hire indie directors and let them do their thing. Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi is the obvious example, but even Avengers’ Joss Whedon, in spite of him creating three of the greatest television shows ever made (also Dollhouse), had only helmed one feature film before Avengers — the good-but-unprofitable Serenity. Like I said, Half Nelson was wonderful, but it was very low-budget. It’s useless to speculate, but it feels like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were chewed up and spat out by the “Marvel machine”; for how blandly competent it was, I was half convinced they’d ditched Boden and Fleck about halfway through and brought in the guy who made Thor: The Dark World. This is a product made by an assembly line. In that way, it more closely resembles the directorless, hacked-to-pieces disaster Justice League, and I truly can think of no worse insult.

And so we come to Brie Larson. Now, Larson is an incredible actress. I feel like this is a given. While the Academy Awards have a very well-deserved reputation for being wrong on an alarmingly consistent basis (hi, Crash, Green Book, etc.), Larson’s Oscar for Room was one of those rare instances where the Academy got it absolutely right, both for the actress and the role. She brought a level of nuance and passion to that film that blew me (and seemingly everyone else) away. But there’s just something wrong here. She feels disconnected from everything, like the movie’s happening around her and she’s just observing it. Captain Marvel is a multi-layered character, but it really felt like Larson got stuck on the “stoic, dispassionate soldier” layer and no one knew what to do about it.

Also, the action scenes just generally suck. Part of this is again Larson, who never really seems to be in any danger. Even the early fight where her powers are greatly restrained, she plows through henchmen with about as much ease as ever, and always with that one stoic facial expression. But mostly, it’s the camera work, and the return of the dreaded shaky-cam quick-cut combo. There’s a chase scene, where Nick Fury and Phil Coulson are trying to catch up to a moving train on which Captain Marvel is dueling a Kree, and it plays like The French Connection but shitty. The chase takes place in broad daylight, but it’s practically impossible to tell where anyone or anything is in relation to each other.

Speaking of fights, there’s one where Captain Marvel has to go up against her former comrades in arms. These people, we’re meant to understand, have been fighting alongside each other for six years, having each other’s backs, looking out for the other. A unit. And now they have to battle for the fate of their civilizations. This should be some grand, Shakespearean shit, but it’s all just brushed aside for an empty, dispassionate, poorly choreographed fight set to a really bad tune.

This isn’t a completely bad movie. There’s the occasional moment of real charm, the most obvious being Stan Lee’s very sweet cameo. Talking of Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, the de-aging special effects are genuinely awe-inspiring. Sam Jackson looks exactly like he did in The Negotiator, and after about a minute I forgot I was looking at a special effect. Jackson and Larson have good interplay, as they do with Ben Mendelsohn’s character. His Telos felt very well fleshed out, and he gets some of the best lines. And the cat was cute.

But at the end of the day, the film is a disappointment. The lack of worldbuilding cripples any sense of reality the other planets might’ve had, the overall message is confused and unclear, and there’s a real sense that the main character just isn’t interested in anything happening around her. I don’t know if it’s an actor thing or a director thing, but somewhere something went wrong. I’m still excited for Endgame — of course I am — but this could’ve been so much more.

 

Us review

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Photo Source: www.vanityfair.com

If there were any lingering doubts as to Jordan Peele’s skill behind the camera, the opening minutes to Us puts them firmly to bed. Set in 1986 Santa Cruz, we follow a young girl on vacation with her parents, wandering through a an amusement park-illuminated boardwalk. Said girl is separated from her parents, whereupon she wanders into a hall of mirrors, where she finds…let’s call her a bad reflection. As you may have seen in the trailer, she grows up, marries, has two children, and goes back to that same beach, where they are all menaced by a whole family of bad reflections.

But back to the carnival; that first sequence is masterful. The movement of the camera both accentuates the size and unfamiliarity of the girl’s surroundings, and pushes in, giving the place a tight, almost claustrophobic feel. The sound design is perfect, expertly capturing the disorienting nature of all amusement parks everywhere. We are right there with the girl, being pulled into that awful funhouse of mirrors, and like her, we don’t like what we see. But we can’t turn away.

For his sophomore feature, Jordan Peele creeps along, the film at times seeming to move at a deliberate snail’s pace, forcing us to wait for the fireworks factory. Whereas Get Out was a perfect slow-burn thriller (its screenplay win at the Oscars was very well deserved), Us occasionally feels scattershot, jumping around in fits and starts all while displaying a mastery of the craft. While the pacing isn’t always up to snuff, the individual scenes are never less than wonderful; anyone who saw the masterful 2015 psychological horror The Gift will remember how that film expertly took advantage of both the foreground and background, using little details to mine extra tension. Us does this brilliantly as well, crafting scenes with such skill that you’d swear he’s been making films forever.

Us is way more of a horror film that Get Out, which was itself more of a thriller (though genres are, obviously, stupid and reductive). Us is also probably less of a social commentary than Get Out, at least in terms of having a clear, easily-digestible message. I feel like I need to see it a second time in order to parse out what it all means. Also, I really, really want to see it a second time just anyways. This is a film made with such a passion for horror, someone with a deep love for the genre.

If Us isn’t quite as clear and groundbreaking as Get Out, it’s always entertaining in the moment. I’m very curious to see what others think the film “means”; I’ll confess that it’s not quite as clear to me as Get Out was, the meaning of which hit me like a punch in the gut. Here, it could be any number of things things, and it occurs to me that it might actually be more vague on purpose; while the film certainly offers up a couple of potential underlying themes (the title itself might be a big clue), I imagine that this is something that will be argued about and debated indefinitely. That’s not a bad thing.

As much as the directing stands out, this is definitely an actor’s movie. Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave and provided the moral compass for Black Panther (lowkey, she’s the smartest person in that movie), and I was hyped beyond belief to see her tear up a horror flick. She does not disappoint. So good is she, in fact, that I feel comfortable in predicting that the Oscars will completely ignore her (it happened to Toni Collette, probably the best all-around performance in a movie last year). Winston Duke, her Black Panther co-star, captivates the screen with his charisma, creating the kind of dad I feel like we’ve all met. His comic timing is perfectly delivered and deployed. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex play their children, and they are both wonderful; one of the best scenes in the entire film has the four of them arguing at a dinner table, and through the dialogue and direction we are shown glimpses into their minds, their insecurities, their strengths.

There is some unforgettable imagery in this movie. As can be expected in a story about doppelgängers, the idea of doubles and mirrors is quite prevalent. Near the beginning of the film, we see a doomsday prophet with a cardboard sign with a quote from Jeremiah 11:11, Later, our attention is drawn to a digital clock where the time is 11:11. Soon after, the dad watches sports on TV, where the score is 11 to 11. When the Wilsons go to the beach, they meet up with another family, and it’s interesting to see them as even more of a broken mirror image than the doppelgängers. And I’ll just say this: there was a “Hands Across America” flyer in my old kindergarten classroom, the one where everyone’s holding hands and circling the globe. I will NEVER look at that the same way again.

I can definitely see being underwhelmed by Us. It’s an imperfect, confounding, at times frustrating film to get a handle on. But I really got into it, appreciating the crazy wavelength it operated on, as well as how Jordan Peele was taking deliberate steps to expand from his previous film. Whatever else, it’s a film I’ll be puzzling over for a long time coming.

The 2019 Oscars: or, An Exercise in Cinematic Cowardice

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(Photo credit: https://www.okayplayer.com/culture/green-book-wikipedia-page-sabotaged-after-oscars-win.html)

The Oscars getting it wrong – hilariously, spectacularly, unfathomably wrong – is nothing new. Hell, it’s practically a tradition in of itself. Much as I love Rocky, I’ll be the first to admit that it beating out Taxi Driver was ridiculous. Dances With Wolves was great, yes, but better than Goodfellas? For all of Forrest Gump’s charm, was it really better than Pulp Fiction or The Shawshank Redemption? And Driving Miss Daisy beating out Do The Right Thing? Well-

Actually, let’s stop there, because that kind of ties into the 2019 Oscars kind of perfectly. Scarily perfectly, in fact. In 1989, the Academy had a choice; a safe, cushy movie that kind of-sort of-didn’t really make them confront the ugly realities of the world we live in, or one of the most vital, incendiary, confrontational movies, one that shoved your face into the world and said, “This is you.”

Naturally, they chose Driving Miss Daisy. And now, exactly 30 years later, they have learned nothing.

And I had high hopes, too. I feel like every movie lover has that moment when they realize just how bullshit the Oscars are (mine was seeing Crash, and then a little later catching Brokeback Mountain and leaning that Crash had beaten it out), but all the same, I hoped. I really did. Not one year ago, Moonlight had crushed what had been considered to be the safest of all Oscar bets, the loving ode to Hollywood and musicals, La La Land. That the Academy had done this implied that maybe, maybe, they had finally grown some balls.

Nope. Here we are again, with BlacKKKlansman and Black Panther both in the running, and what won? Green Book.

Green Book.

Really.

It feels weird to say that I’m a huge Spike Lee fan when BlacKKKlansman is the first joint of his that I’ve seen on the big screen. I saw it in a packed house on a Thursday night, with many of my fellow theater-goers – at least, the ones in my immediate vicinity – of the elderly white persuasion. They were into the film, very vocally – they chuckled along with the jokes, they “ooohed” to Ron Stallworth standing up for himself, they audibly cringed and boo-ed when Trump was vaguely alluded to, and they cheered the end, when the racists get what’s coming to them, and everything is wrapped up in a nice, neat bow.

And then something very interesting happened. Because the film didn’t stop there, and I can honestly say that what we were treated to next was stunning. We cut to clips of Charlottesville. Trump speeches. Racism – modern day racism, something I genuinely don’t think any of Green Book’s writers think exist – and terrorism. Mass hysteria. No more fun and games.

The crowd was silent. Someone coughed. No one had turned against the movie, per say, but it was obvious they had been thrown for a loop. We had been promised a good time clowning at a few goofy racists, laughing at how incompetent and obviously evil they were back in the olden days, because obviously that’s where racism was, and only there. And sure, sometimes the movie would get serious, but not too serious. Right?

The ending changed all that. Spike Lee’s message rang out, loud and clear; we all had a good time here, he was saying, but don’t forget that for black people, this is reality. This is our everyday existence. You can go home, shrug all this off; we can’t.I was stunned. It was exactly as in-your-face confrontational as his previous masterpiece, Do The Right Thing. It was unapologetic and unafraid.

And then, as icing on the cake, they nominated Black Panther.

Love it, hate it, or feel underwhelmed by it, it’s impossible to deny how big a gamble Marvel took with Black Panther. Hiring Ryan Coogler, the master behind Fruitvale Station and Creed, Marvel was giving a multi-million dollar property to someone who’d never made a blockbuster. More than that, they were letting him make an unapologetically complex and nuanced movie – a genuine successor to Do The Right Thing in terms of racial understanding – all in the guise of a Marvel blockbuster. To say it paid off is obvious; to say it is easily the best MCU movie perhaps less so (though it’s by far the deepest and most emotionally wide-ranging). It was daring. It was ballsy. It was confrontational. It was everything we thought was a fluke in previous superhero films, and everything so many previous MCU movies just weren’t. And it was a Best Picture nomination.

And they went with Green Book.

Green Book, simply put, is a film for cowards, those lily-livered wimps who’d rather bury their heads in the sand and pretend racism was well and truly solved when one white guy gave one black guy fried chicken that one time. This film exists not only as the ultimate exercise in cinematic mediocrity but as the ultimate “but also” movie, the kind of film made for people who, when confronted with racism, randomly shout “BUT WHAT ABOUT BLACK-ON-BLACK VIOLENCE” out of nowhere. It’s a shallow, unfeeling movie with no interest in really diving into what drives these two people – how much of Don Shirley’s character is “part of his show”, or how long he spent cultivating his image, or whether or not Tony’s racism at the start is just ignorance, or something much deeper – this is all ignored in favor of a stupid, “They both need to change to get along” attitude. It is the last word in Oscar cowardice.

Consider the second Ancestral Plane visit in Black Panther. Killmonger has just usurped the throne from T’Challa and undergoes the same journey he previously did. Only, something’s wrong; whereas T’Challa was out in the open, here Killmonger is trapped inside the concrete walls he knew as a child, only able to see the vibrant sky from through a window. And whereas T’Challa was able to speak to his father man-to-man, as soon as Killmonger sees his Dad, he reverts – literally – to a little boy.

Meanwhile, Green Book has this scene where one guy feeds another guy fried chicken and this cures racism.

Sigh…

The really weird thing is, in some ways this was the best Oscars show in a while. Without a host, the thing moved along at a pretty brisk pace, and there were some fine speeches (petition to have every acceptance speech end with “LADY GAGA!” Bless you, Olivia Colman). I’ll never stop hoping the Oscars get it right. But they’ve been wrong – they’ve been cowards – so many times before.

Hilda Review

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(Photo Credit: http://www.animationmagazine.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/hilda-post2.jpg)

Hilda is a charming and overall very likable series on Netflix which I highly recommend checking out. It is the type of show I could see people watching on a cold fall night just before winter has fully settled in the air, or during a snowy winter’s day when you have nothing to do but curl up with a nice cup of hot cocoa (extra marshmallows, butterscotch syrup, and whipped cream) curled up nice and tight with a favorite pillow or blanket for warmth. It’s one of those unassuming shows that mostly fly underneath people’s radar, but I personally think it deserves an advocate, despite how simple and unassuming it might be. It may just be a silly little kid’s show, but once in a while I think silly little kid’s shows deserve their limelight too, and Hilda is one of those times.

If I had to equate it to other pieces of media, I would say it’s somewhere along the lines if Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall had a slightly less neurotic love child. A calming atmosphere with soothing tones to every episode, Hilda is the perfect Netflix show to watch if you want to be transported back to days of forgotten childhood where adventure and exploring the world was all that mattered. The relaxed story throughout the series follows the title character Hilda along her journey with her friends throughout the city of Trollburg and all the wild types of things they get up to.

The series touches on many topics that people can relate to even in college. Things such as leaving one’s home behind for a new one, trying to fit in, conquering your fears, and making new friends. While it does touch on some mature topics now and then, it handles them in a very nuanced and relaxed way, more focusing on the characters interacting with each other, rather than dwelling on issues and hitting you over the head with moral lessons and ethical philosophies. The animation style is also a breath of fresh air; soft earth tone colors scatter the screen in a relaxed and flowing manner. While it still grabs one’s attention, it doesn’t overwhelm the senses with erratic and overwhelming bursts of color every moment on screen. Even if cartoons aren’t your thing, I would recommend checking out the overall playlist of the show. It is super soothing and I would really recommend adding it to anyone’s study playlist if they like soft bouncy music without any lyrics that evoke the sense of wonder and adventure. Personally, those kinds of songs are the ones that get me through any form of math class. Not only that but also the main characters are also very charming as well, each one memorable and likable in their own unique way with a variety of personalities. If whimsical music and somewhat childish antics aren’t your thing, perhaps give this one a pass. If you are like me and love a burst of nostalgic intermingled with lovely calming visuals, interspersed with a soothing yet whimsical overall orchestration in the background swelling to reveal beautifully drawn landscapes, I highly recommend this show.

Serenity (No, Not That One, The New One)

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(Photo credit: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6476140/)

Baker Dill: “I need you to deliver me from temptation.”

Duke: “What temptation?”

Baker Dill: “You don’t need to know.”

Last year, it seemed that the whole film world collectively got up and declared Gotti the worst film of the year upon release. And while it wasn’t –– that particular dishonor goes to Holmes and Watson –– it’s all too easy to see where critics were coming from. Gotti was a special kind of bad, a movie where ineptitude and poor decision making seemed to become a character in of itself. Though it only came out in June, it seemed primed to be the butt of the joke even as December came to a close.

And now, we’ve got another impossibly bad movie, another contender for the “surely, this is as bad as it gets, right?”, except we’re only in January. Holy shit. If this is any indication, we’re in for a bumpy ride. A hilarious, fascinating, often awe-inspiring ride, and one in which we see Matthew McConaughey’s “O” face and bare ass way too much (if such a thing were possible), but still…batten down the hatches. Here we go.

The crazy thing is, I was looking forward to this one. I’m a die-hard neo-noir fan, and according to the trailers, that’s exactly what this was, though in my defense, the trailers didn’t give any hint to how batshit insane this movie is. The movie initially seems to follow Matthew McConaughey as a washed up fisherman, completely obsessed with catching this one big fish. He really wants to catch this big fish, and everyone knows he wants to catch this big fish, and everyone is always talking about how obsessed he is with catching this big fish, until I’m like, “Alright, alright, enough with the big fish.” This was less than a third of the way through the movie.

I’m gonna describe the first scene of the film real quick. We open on an extreme close up of a little boy, before zooming into his right eye to reveal the wide ocean, where Matthew McConaughey is sunburnt and fish hunting. In order to supplement his income, he allows himself to be hired out by rich old dudes to fish on his boat. When Matthew McConaughey’s lure catches the big fish, one of the old dudes try to take his rod away. Remember, this is the service that this man has paid for. So, the old guy tries to take Matthew McConaughey’s rod away, saying, “I paid you $700 cash for this!” Matthew McConaughey responds in the only way he knows how: he unsheathes his knife and charges at the old guy, hissing and spitting like mad. The only reason he doesn’t skewer the guy right then and there is the timely intervention of his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou). That Duke knows just what to do here implies that this isn’t the first time Matthew McConaughey has attempted to murder the people hiring him. After a valiant struggle, the fish gets away, and the old guy who has already paid $700 says, “If you think I’m paying you one cent for this, you’re out of your mind.”

Hoo boy.

What makes this attempted murder even more bizarre is that the rest of the movie hinges on Matthew McConaughey’s unwillingness to commit murder, this time actually justifiable. Anne Hathaway, who is introduced into the movie with a fake sparkle on her ring and a truly bizarre camera spin, reenters Matthew McConaughey’s life with a startling proposal: take her new, deeply abusive husband out to sea, and kill him before he hurts her and their son any more. Jason Clarke plays the husband, and in an early scene we see him talking about a rumor he heard regarding the cheapness of hookers on the island. This scene climaxes with Clarke saying the line, “I gotta hit me up with some of that $10 ass,” and if you thought the theater I saw this in wasn’t laughing uproariously…well, they were.

The film is filled with lines like that. Matthew McConaughey (whose name is technically Baker Dill, but c’mon; it’s Matthew McConaughey) describes his backstory as such: “I went away to war. The war fucked me up. When I came back, she was with him…except I never really came back.” Duke, his shipmate, describes their fortunes as such: “Ever since your wife died, we ain’t caught jack shit.” Matthew McConaughey’s abused son has a photo of his old man that has the words, “ME AND DAD BACK THEN” on the back. I literally don’t have the space here to go into all the other weird shit this movie does, with the fish-based dream sequence, the frequently appearing Ominous Seagull of Foreshadowing and Doom, the bespeckled guy everyone just calls “the skinny guy” even though he’s really not all that skinny, and holy shit there’s just so much. It’s genuinely overwhelming.

How did this happen? Steven Knight has two films under his belt, the Jason Statham vehicle Hummingbird (released as Redemption in the US), which I haven’t seen, and the Tom Hardy vehicle Locke, which I did see, and thought was absolutely brilliant. Locke (which at time of writing is available on Netflix, and I urge you to check it out) takes place entirely in one car, yet it is never boring. It is a lesson in technical expertise and pitch-perfect directing. Serenity has actors, including the main ones, looking into camera by accident. It boggles the mind.

Even before the big twist, I had this movie pegged as a serious drama as filtered through the mind of a six year old. I had no idea how right I actually was. Serenity is a movie so bad, so incomprehensible, so fucking weird, that the frequent appearance of Matthew McConaughey’s bare ass barely warrants a mention.

Book Review: The Odyssey, Translated by Emily Wilson

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Picture source: kensandersbooks.com

I read The Odyssey my sophomore year of high school, and the beautifully antiquated English and repetitive, ornamented epithets of the “wine-dark” sea and “rosy-fingered” dawn were not enough to entice me towards forming a personal connection with the text. Instead, I viewed the androcentric narrative of a man’s journey home after plunder and conquest as yet another ‘universal’ story that excluded, essentialized, and violated women. Call me naive, indeed I was; yet, it should come as no surprise to those well-versed or even peripherally familiar with classical studies that the boys’ club mentality of the discipline has a fraught history with welcoming female scholars to its elite ranks. In 2018, Emily Wilson became the first woman to publish an English translation of The Odyssey. Wilson’s introduction moves nimbly between the ancient world and the modern one. She presents a convincing argument for rendering an ancient text using frank, modern English. In effect, Wilson has authored a translation student readers will find accessible, casual readers enjoyable, and hopefully academic readers ideal for teaching and worthy of scholarly acclaim.

In her introduction to the translation, Wilson begins by defining an epic poem. According to Wilson, The Odyssey is an epic “in the sense that it is long, and in the sense that it presents itself as telling an important story.” On the one hand, The Odyssey’s elevated style, the regular poetic rhythm of dactylic hexameter (in Wilson’s translation iambic pentameter) and use of an assortment of formalistic language unassociated with the common dialects of ancient Greek peoples during any single time period, place the text in an elevated realm. On the other hand, Wilson notes how Odysseus’ story deviates from what modern readers may expect of an epic narrative in that there is no individual moment of climactic victory. Unlike “Jason claiming the Golden Fleece, Lancelot glimpsing the Holy Grail,” or modern examples such as Harry defeating Voldemort: “In The Odyssey, we find instead the story of a man whose grand adventure is simply to go back to his own home … For this hero, mere survival is the most amazing feat of all.” A central tenet of Wilson’s introduction is that Odysseus’ story is fundamentally tied to its roots in antiquity; yet, The Odyssey’s themes—of migration, ambiguous morality, homelessness and hospitality, fidelity and infidelity, deity worship, and the aftermath of violence and war—continue to carry profound relevance in the canon of Western literature, as in our contemporary world.

Wilson summarizes the contentious debate over the date of The Odyssey’s conception and the text’s authorship. The closest scholars have come to establishing consensus on the composition date of The Odyssey is sometime between the late seventh and late eighth centuries BCE. Long before the poem was transcribed, diverse versions and sections from the work were performed by bards as a form of entertainment for the elite families of ancient Greece. The poem’s origins in the oral tradition establish an additional level of complexity regarding the composition date and authorship of The Odyssey. Even if there existed a single author and scribe with an independent vision, the story of Odysseus predates The Odyssey as a written text.

The debate centering around The Odyssey’s authorship has therefore been similarly argumentative. In the nineteenth century, for example, Homeric scholarship was divided between the Unitarian and Analytic schools. The Unitarians believed that the poem was “not an aggregate of earlier, shorter compositions, but … composed by a lone author with a single overarching structure in mind.” Whereas, “[t]he Analysts, by contrast, argued that the epics [The Odyssey and The Iliad] were produced by many different hands.” Although it may be tempting to imagine Homer, “the poet,” as a single individual—most likely a man—Wilson invites readers to “question the notion that a unified structure and coherent creative product must necessarily be seen as the result of an individual’s work.” Modern readers familiar with the various forms of storytelling born as a result of advancements in technology may be more adept at viewing Homer’s text “as a mostly unified whole … which was created by multiple different people, over a long period of time.”

Migration, plunder, conquest, nationality, colonialism, and physical and racial Othering, are all recurring themes of The Odyssey. Wilson walks a careful line between using modern theoretical work in her introduction, while not utilizing terminology that evokes anachronistic interpretation in her translation. For example, while many modern translators have used the word “savage” to describe the cyclops, Wilson avoids the application of terms that carry connotations associated with British colonial history. Such terminology may cause readers to incorrectly map European colonialist practices on to those of ancient Greek peoples. In contrast to modern fears regarding migration, hospitality—albeit among elite, adult men—is a core motif of The Odyssey. Hospitality and the fair, honest treatment of strangers, or “guest-friends,” signifies for Odysseus whether or not an individual or a community is civilized. Wilson writes, “The word … xenos can mean both ‘stranger’ and ‘friend’; it is the root from which we get the English word ‘xenophobia’, the fear of strangers or foreigners, as well as the sadly less common ‘xenophilia’, the love of strangers or of unknown objects.”

The roles of women and the navigation of gender dynamics in The Odyssey are likewise rigorously addressed in Wilson’s introduction and translator’s note. Wilson discusses the text’s strong emphasis on female sexual fidelity. Although Odysseus has multiple affairs during his absence, the narrative rewards Penelope for remaining sexually chaste. Penelope’s fidelity to her husband, her role as the loyal partner, is paralleled with Agamemnon’s wife’s betrayal which results in the war hero’s tragic death. In regard to translation, Wilson does not use language that eroticizes the murdered slave women’s bodies at the text’s obscene conclusion: “in the scene where Telemachus oversees the hanging of the slaves who have been sleeping with the suitors, most translations introduce derogatory language (‘sluts’ or ‘whores’), suggesting that these women are being punished for a genuinely objectionable pattern of behavior, as if their sexual history actually justified their deaths. The original Greek does not label these slaves with any derogatory language.” Furthermore, Wilson refrains from presenting female beauty as a catalyst of male conflict, as in Christopher Marlowe’s famous words on Helen’s face: “the face that launched a thousand ships.” Directly translated, Helen’s face is described as “dog-like” and Wilson employs the verb “hounded” to describe the role of Helen’s objectified body during the Trojan War. Wilson emphasizes the patriarchal imaginary of The Odyssey, rather than attributing male actions to an essentialized aspect of women’s sexuality.

Wilson’s contemporary English translation flows effortlessly. Unlike many modern translators, Wilson engages poetic structure. She uses (unrhymed) iambic pentameter (five metrical feet, unstressed/stressed) the most common meter in regular English verse found in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. Moreover, Wilson states, “Homer’s language is markedly rhythmical, but it is not difficult or ostentatious … My translation is, I hope, recognizable as an epic poem, but it is one that avoids trumpeting its own status with bright, noisy linguistic fireworks, in order to invite a more thoughtful consideration of what the narrative means, and the ways it matters.” Linguistic flourishes may have a pseudo-scholarly effect; but in reality, our grandparents’ English, or the English of their parents, is no closer to the ancient Greek than our modern tongue.

The Odyssey is a story that encompasses many themes modern readers will find familiar: “loyalty, famil[y], migrant[ion], consumerism, violence, war, poverty, identity, rhetoric, and lies.” However, this ancient text displays foreign characteristics as well: Gods move among men, and men move between the worlds of the living and the dead; sea monsters, sirens, and cyclopes inhabit the earth; nymphs live autonomously on islands, although mortal women are confined to their marital homes; and cunning Odysseus, who has survived against unimaginable odds, is trying to return home. At the conclusion of Wilson’s translator’s note, she invites her readers to imagine Odysseus’ story as one would a traveler, inviting him in with all the “warmth, curiosity, openness, and suspicion” that hospitality entails. Odysseus is a military leader, migrant, mass murderer, husband, and father. Above all, as the first lines of Wilson’s poem indicate, he is no ordinary hero: “Tell me about a complicated man / Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost.”

Emily Wilson is a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her translation of The Odyssey has received widespread critical praise.

 

Bumblebee: or, How They Finally Got It Right

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Picture source: straitstimes.com

The Transformers were kid toys; they were literally meant to be played by children. You wouldn’t know it, though, based on the previous decade of movies: long, ponderous, grim, unintelligible, and so, so boring. In recent years, the Michael Bay Transformers movies have become every cinema geek’s go-to punching bag and for good reason. They’re really, really fucking terrible. But beyond all the poor directing choices, bad acting, and everything else, the movies seemed to possess a fundamental misunderstanding of who exactly the movies were supposed to be for. This fundamental identity crisis is just one of the many things Travis Knight’s Bumblebee rectifies.

Set in loose continuity with the other movies (meaning thankfully that seeing the others before this one is not at all necessary), the movie opens on Cybertron for an opening battle that – gasp, shock – I could actually see. Already, this was a damn game changer for the Transformers franchise. From there, we move to 1987s California, where an escaping Bumblebee meets up with Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager still smarting from the death of her father. Bumblebee has fled to Earth on orders from Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobot resistance, with a mission: protect the planet until further Transformer backup can arrive. Unfortunately, two Decepticon villains have traced his signal back to Earth and have teamed up with the military to take Bumblebee down. Further complicating matters, Bumblebee has lost both his memory and his voice. Will Charlie and Bumblebee be able to overcome their obstacles and save the world?

First off, this movie is fun. It is really, really fun in a way that Transformers movies haven’t been in a very long time. It’s a movie that completely understands that it’s about a robot that can turn into a car and shoot missiles. One of the Decepticons has a liquifier gun! A gun that liquifies! But the action isn’t centered around robot wars. For me, the best parts of the movie were the more low-key moments, when it became an Iron Giant-like story about a girl and her robot friend, just living their lives. This is a very low stakes movie for most of its running time, which was absolutely the right choice. Over the course of its 114 minutes, I got to know both Bumblebee and Charlie pretty well, which meant that by the time the fireworks factory opened its doors for the climax, I actually cared about what was happening.

Also, the action in this movie is very well done. Gone are the nausea-inducing clusterfucks of old, where you occasionally got a clear glimpse of Optimus Prime’s elbow (but really, it could be anyone’s). Travis Knight, in his second feature after Kubo and the Two Strings, knows exactly where to place the camera for maximum effect, getting everything into frame and making sure the punches have impact. The climax is legitimately thrilling, never descending into “two CGI things punch each other for 1,000 minutes”, but instead relying on both Charlie and Bumblebee to use their wits to defeat the menace.

For all that, the movie is not without fault. It’s a little too similar to The Iron Giant, for one thing, with shades of E.T. thrown in there for good measure, and this movie can’t help but pale in comparison to both. Some of the scenes are a little too rote, and while the movie is a deliberate throwback, that doesn’t stop it from occasionally feeling a tad too familiar. Love Simon’s Jorge Lendeborg Jr. gets too little to do as the love interest, Charlie’s family disappear from the movie for long stretches at a time, and John Cena’s character only has an emotional arc by virtue of John Cena giving it his all, performance wise. The script kind of leaves him out to dry.

But while watching Bumblebee, none of that occurred to me. I was hopeful a directing change would imbue new life into this franchise, and it’s always nice to be proven right.

 

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