Haylee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Aldon, Stephen Schneider, Jason Ian Drucker, Jon Ortiz and John Cena, with the voices of Dylan O’Brien, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux and Peter Cullen.
What starts with pizza ends in artifice.
When I was a high school loser the place to hang after the Friday football game was the local pizza joint. I was a bando—as I have blabbed many times here at RIO—and me and my dorky winners would always end up grabbing a few slices at this smallish corner place of holy meal. We mobbed the place. The dining room seated at least two dozen souls on busy night. Fridays during football season? Me and my cronies found ourselves SRO. I was clever. I hovered over the tables where the cheerleaders were eating. Went nowhere. Couldn’t blame a guy.
When the place achieved a critical mass and nothing more than nibbled crusts getting crustier on one of those warped metal platters the joint was more of a weigh station than the local spot to order a to go calzone. It became a subway line. Parents wheeled up to scoop up the kids (hopefully theirs) and those having to bail were send off like passengers on the Titanic. All the cute girls—cheerleaders and band front—would plot some after hours thing; someone always had their folks out of town, a la a John Hughes stroke of luck. The promise of crappy beer, schnapps in the cabinet which would be easily cracked…and more pizza. Microwaved, natch. There might’ve been a pool lurking around somewhere, or even a pool table. An opportunity to celebrate the festivities (even if we lost). What game? We have pom-poms! And those things that rustle when you scrub them together. Who wants a Dirty Girl Scout? Used to be one! And puke.
In light of the reverie I always myself bumping my head against the wall with a dull, rhythmic thump. One of the guys behind the counter caught me one time. Asked me a kind way you okay against knock it off. I turned around and opted to bump from that angle. I tried to tune into the brouhaha but it was so loud and pulled from the second act of 90210 (clap, clap). Yay, our team won or not. Beast loomed large. All I wanted to do was go home with a six from the gargantuan fullback who looked more 21 than I looked 16. Helped that the kid’s dad worked there. Needed a new dad.
The lens gets blurry. One only recalls the fun stuff. According to me the most pernicious liar is memory. Chances are what I scrawled above is a scam. Except how fine pizza is at the right hours. Bud Lite abides to no hour except when you have to ShopVac your mom’s Volvo she lent you before homeward bound. Been there.
No you weren’t. You weren’t mewling over the cheerleaders either. They we never there, nor puking in the pool. There was no pool. It was October. I kept thumping my head.
I used to work at that very pizza joint post-college. Delivery guy and extra hand behind the line when sub teaching was a few and far between gig. Didn’t like getting up early, so that didn’t work out so well. Later scored a gig at a bakery. Drove me crazy and let the owner well aware. Sounds like Frears film, right? Sorta and then I kept wishing for that wall against my head. Some of us need some time to bonk, trying to jumpstart some worn out motherboard screwed into the frontal lobes. Gotta raise that dough proper.
None of the above happened. Minus the pizza joint head banging, and for that bit will be saved for some other time.
I remembered all that BS, but I remembered all wrong. I know I did; the scenes played out like an ep of Beverly Hills 90210 yet again (it was the 90s). It was more like a scattered few chipped away memories. The truth was—including the pizza parlor—was a half empty restaurant and we all kept to our tables. There was no cross pollination, save a few shouts. The bandos socialized with other bandos while their pizza went cold. The band front girls squealed as their slices went untouched. Cheerleaders don’t eat. And I bumped my head, again and again. That much was certain.
So what gives? I should’ve worn a hockey helmet and ignored my future Assistant Manager?
To paraphrase the late, great S/F writer Harlan Ellison of all liars the most pernicious is memory. I say pernicious because mistaken memories can really f*ck up your worldview. That whole “good ol’ days” fallacy you tell yourself against the truth, since the hard reality these days bite the big one. Here’s a field study. One time many years ago at my local bar I got into an argument with some stranger. No, really. An argument in a bar. With some random guy. Figure that. He got to waxing rhapsodic about the 1960s when he was a teen and how amazing it was. He went on about Woodstock, free love and the civil rights movement. I had to acknowledge those cultural touchstones, but I was quick to counter with assassinations, lingering Jim Crow and the draft, which by extension led the futile Vietnam Conflict to lurch into the mid-70s. Guy got so agitated that his youth culture wasn’t all puppy dogs and ice cream the barkeep had to escort him outside. I had burst a bubble and inadvertently pissed in his punchbowl. In hindsight the guy didn’t like being judged after he passed judgment on a silly 1980s whippersnapper like me, didn’t like having to taste the bitter with the sweet. Or he was just drunk. Maybe all three. In hindsight. Nostalgia can be potent, more so than actual memory sometimes. The guy wasn’t aware that the Conflict quit in ’75. We were both pished, so who’s to argue what we remembered?
Don’t misunderstand me. Growing up in the 80s was just as “memorable” as coming of age in the 60s. We had our amazing moments, too. The dawn of video game culture, affordable VHS so you can watch movies from the comfort of your couch, personal computers (however primitive) for household purposes, the Berlin Wall finally toppling, Marvel Comics’ Bronze Age going strong and cellphones. However I am not so blinded by nostalgia to remember all the other gripping conflicts that so battered the US in the 80s. The AIDS crisis for one, the saving and loans scandals that f*cked up the economy like no gas crisis ever could, the Challenger disaster that really screwed NASA’s pooch for years after, and most of all Cold War tensions at an all time high. That and cellphones.
My intro was to carve out of what was real and what was fantasy. C’mon. We always shave off the stubble of our keen memories to dumb it down and make it digestible. The concert really wasn’t that great, and the book’s always better than the movie. Any pizza will do, save fresh. Like the joke goes: sex is like pizza. Even when it’s bad it’s good. Memories do not work that way. There was nostalgia and there was the truth.
I recall the bandos. I recall my head against the wall, overwhelmed by the post-game foofaraw, and no cheerleaders to be seen (save a few who were friends with a few of my friends). I sat with my cronies for a while, but had to get up and press (not bump) me head against the wall. There was that benediction, as well as opportunity to talk to my crush who was sitting with her BFF in a far corner of the place. My head grinding into the wall for all that could see.
That was the truth. The point?
As I have commented before that the only thing that truly improves with time is nostalgia. A scratch on the contact lens of memory makes the perspective just right. Like trying to get over the Vietnam tragedy. My own myopia is a lot less dreary.
As an adult do you ever wonder about the stuff you were heavily into as a kid? We’ll cut to the quick: TV shows. Cutting quicker to your after school cartoon lineup. Here’s some of my nostalgia. As a kid of the 80s I would decompress before homework time by watching GIJoe, DuckTales, He-Man, and above all the Cosby Show of the decade’s sci-fi melodrama TransFormers. I only cite these shows based on later nostalgiafests courtesy of boredom and YouTube. To be fair back in the day there was a lot of schlock thrown at us kids who needed a break from that day’s schlock. I have a small list of dumb cartoons that made my eyes roll back then as they do now me being a cartoon connoisseur. Is that even a surprise by now?
My recent nostalgia trip—prepping for this installment—was to figure that my childhood memories were somewhat pernicious. I watched eps of the aforementioned toons via YouTube and was surprised I still dug them even from an adult’s eye. Thanks to that vision I saw sh*t I missed as a snot-nosed youth. For instance He-Man was lousy with winking humor and ecchi suggestions (why was Teela’s butt cheeks on were on display so much. Heard it was for the amusement of the animators). There was always this Abbott and Costello dynamic between Beast-Man and Skeletor who could not stop cackling like Margaret Hamilton in her prime. And there was always Man-At-Arms. The Squidward to Adam’s Spongebob. To wrap it up He-Man was an action/comedy and not the so weird sci-fi I somehow got hip to back then.
Why was that? Guess what? I got an idear. Clever writing that pandered to grown-ups, not exclusively third graders. Long since figured its the art not the artifice when I comes to producing cartoons. Ask any GenXer that back in day our cartoon programming fell into three camps. One, good writing paired with decent animation (EG: the aforementioned GIJoe, DuckTales He-Man, etc). Two, lousy writing paired with good animation (EG: ThunderCats, SilverHawks, anything else from Rankin/Bass) and; Three, some weird amalgam that somehow hits the mark for everyone, kids and old kids alike. Duh, I’m talking TransFormers. The animation was simple, but smooth. The show had great voice acting, and always had a nifty s/f twist often paired with social commentary (read: the episodes Make Tracks and the 2 part pilot). Namely, the original TransFormers did not spit on the kids’ minds and still hold up to this day.
Again, my recent HALO down the rabbit hole was thanks to YouTube. If that is not a font of video wisdom I wouldn’t know where else to go. I assailed the platform of old TransFormers eps and even the long lamented first movie and guess what I found? Right, they still hold up today (albeit with some creaky dialogue). It was a cool s/f series low on the s/f and essentially Hatfield vs McCoy undertones that espoused family, even with those cranky Decepticons. Even though they were robots they were more “human” than human, especially how the light was shed on the supporting cast of “real” humans. That and the Autobots and their adversaries were a lot less goofy than GoBots.
Am I overselling my point here? Sure, but we’re still gonna chat about how a cartoon adaption can sometimes translate pretty okay to the big screen. So pull up a chair already.
Want to order some Domino’s…?
In a far away arm of the Milky Way the high tech planet/fortress of Cybertron is under siege.
The peaceful society of Autobots have to abandon their homeworld thanks to the nefarious Decepticons who want the planet as their own. By any means necessary. The Autobots are now scattered to the four solar winds in retreat, or else find themselves massacred.
Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Cullen) has seen the writing on the wall and orders the lowly scout B-127—AKA BumbleBee (O’Brien)—to seek refuge on some planet light-years away called Earth. Bee would be the Autobot emissary. The planet has an acceptable ecosystem, and far enough away to escape Decepticon detection. They may be able to regroup there and figure out a way to rid their race of the invaders. Bee accepts the mission. He would never let Prime down.
The best laid plans.
As soon as Bee makes landfall, the nasty Shatter (Bassett) and Dropkick (Theroux) make quick work of the scout. Bolts beat out of him and quickly shutting down, Bee spies and old skool VW and transmits his programming just in time before he goes offline. Fade to black…
It’s Charley’s (Steinfeld) 18th birthday. The only gift she wants is her own car, but the family budget is already tight as her mom (Aldon) is always quick to remind her. Being resourceful and trying to resurrect her late father’s ride (terminally stuck in the garage), Charley uses her gearhead sense and heads off to the local auto graveyard to scrounge for parts. Instead of scoring a bum catalytic converter she happens upon a beater, dingy, yellow VW Beetle. She finds it charming, gets in and starts it up with a hiccup and a cough. Kismet! A piece of sh*t that works is better than a piece of sh*t that doesn’t. She buys the deathtrap for 20 bucks. Happy birthday!
Not long after her impulsive, dubious purchase Charley starts to take note of her new/old car’s peculiar performance. And we ain’t talking actual miles.
Actually we are. Many miles. Many many miles. A sh*t-ton of miles to Earth.
Bee would never let Prime down…
What starts with nostalgia ends in meditation. And some bite.
Like I said, the original run of TransFormers in the 80s was per 20 minute ep a slice of melodrama, sci/fi action, winking humor and pretty decent animation. I knew that Hanna-Barbara this was not. But still at my present age (who is endlessly searching for the most well-kept lawn in my neighborhood) I’ll just take what’s mine. Kinda how nostalgia works; all was good and none was bad.
Or course that’s a lie; a little Vaseline on the lens of memory. Regardless director Knight transcended that fallacy. Maybe “disproved” is a better term. He must’ve scrutinized the ol’ toons (as I had done) for this installment. This movie in the best way felt like an animated TransFormers ep, minus the after school frames per second. I’m talking about the rhythm, the pace and the flow of the movie. It was swiftly paced, but still on the level as far as cartoon pacing went. The editing was clipped, but no so much you felt like something got lost in the shuffle. The framing of the shots were sweeping yet focused. Director Knight must’ve been a deep fan of the old cartoon. He tried to recreate the old eps with live action, and kept the source material true to form.
Thus was Bee‘s appeal. It bounced along like a mechanical ET on a sugar high. It felt like the original ‘toon, but with more intensity (thanks mostly to the antags pursuit of their mission). The story is kinda rote, but in a pleasant, digestable gulp. Kinda like an 80s sitcom, albeit drenched in CGI with a lot more physical humor. C’mon, Bee can’t speak so mime will have to do. And thanks to the deft CGI Bee’s body language speaks for itself. To wit: you ever knew “that guy” in high school? The one who never seemed to speak, sat at lunch alone, and was most likely goth? However given the right moment he’d belt out some clapback that made the teacher furious as well as cracking the class up? Bee’s CGI gesticulating was kinda like that: endearing clumsiness. We’ve all been there, which is why some childish, mute, robot antics hit us different. Not bad in beefing up a lowly, endearing animated Volkswagen. Bee was the “peoples’ car” after all.
With Bee, our fave Autobot mascot is now a stray puppy learning tricks. Earth is a crazy place and thank goodness for Haylee and her sympathetic leash. Steinberg held her own quite well in a franchise drenched in testosterone and 40-weight. Sure, it’s still kind of amusing for a young woman to be a gearhead despite being old hat these days. Then again Jazz. 99% of the franchise is male, and that’s just counting Autobots. And Decepticons. And wherever Shia ran off to. Nice to have a smart, female protagonist in the driver’s seat here. So to speak.
Steinfeld was perfect balancing petulant teen who needs no one and buddy to Bee who tries to extend a (robotic) hand. Yin and yang, tumbling. Teen angst is a touchy subject when it comes to a cinematic performance. For most flicks of this ilk you usually have to put up with mawkishness or some kind of John Hughes elan. Think Napoleon Dynamite up against Sixteen Candles. Stuff wouldn’t work well in a coming of age/action/sci-fi hybrid like Bee. Then again who was asking? Name another coming of age/action/sci-fi hybrid like Bee. I’ll wait.
No I won’t. What worked well here with Steinfeld and her robotic CGI avatar was that they were both teenage outsiders. Always fun to root for the underdogs, that and the classic “kid and their first car” trope, not mention the “boy and his dog” parallel. Right, this kind of thing has been filmed before, and often by the numbers (think Short Circuit or even the beloved WALL-E). The robot on the run. With Bee we have a little homespun charm in the mix. Despite the nastiness of Shatter and Dropkick’s plan to essentially bring about the genocide of not just one but two species it’s offset by humor and sometimes whimsy that feels right at home against the threat. I thank John Cena as a nifty, scene-chewing catalyst/entry drug. I giggled a lot, with or without Cena in the scene. Humor invites buoyancy. Melodrama in return creates tension. And great pacing.
But I digress. Again.
Bee is at heart a family film, albeit an offbeat one. Had a low-grade ET feel to it. It goes an extra mile having our Autobot hero not even “there,” and out of its element cannot speak. Made for good comedy also, esp taking haven in Charlie’s suburban garage. This beloved TransFormer that was a motormouth in the ‘toons got robbed of his gift for gab. But wait…
SPOILER ALERT (I f*cking hate these things):
That was curious plot point in the original TransFormers flick; we get some backstory with Bee. Heck, this was a prequel after all.
Turns out our yellow, off-world buddy suffered a crippling injury to his Autobot pharynx courtesy of Shatter and Dropkick, so speech was rendered null and void. As far as this movie was concerned that was not a detriment to any less resourceful Autobot. Nope, not here. Only a mute Blurr could’ve been more affecting. With Bee we get to experience one of the most annoying, challenging kind of acting that can sometimes be a guilty pleasure: mime. Rather pantomime.
Bee can’t speak, so Charlie speaks for him. At the same time comforting him and trying to get to business. A lot of the tension mounts in Bee due to poor communication, and a lot of CGI “body language” fills in the gaps. Most great tension in movies derive from a lack of communication (EG: Dances With Wolves, Rain Man, Enemy Mine, Nell, etc). Bee is no different. The overarching theme of this film is communication within a family, be it human or Autobot. made glossy by some cool but tasteful CGI. Despite the film’s cold open and Bee’s mission to help his Cybertronian family on the run never feels forced. However Bee’s directive is to aid his Autobot dad is in sharp contrast to how Charlie deals with flesh and blood folks. It was made a point early on that our heroine feels more at ease fixing cars rather than family game night. Forget poor communication; she’d rather not talk to them at all (although she could if she wanted). A setup we all saw coming.
What I truly appreciated about Bee was I’ll call here the “Phantom Effect” done right. Other flicks that mix the actual with green screen often lack this affectation. It’s not a good thing, but to be fair applying green screen tech for films was in its infancy then. Going on 30 years ago. Dig.
According to the party line back when George Lucas finally decided to cut the first three eps of his Star Wars epic he applied all the F/X tech crated from his Industrial Light & Magic think tank to create his idealized, fully-formed, epic space opera universe he wished he had access to back in the 70s. BTW, Dykstra* was not invited back for pre-production. His much loved skills were obsolete by the end of the century. Kinda sad, and in retrospect his input might have proven useful.
Personally I’ve always have a slouching diffidence towards CGI in movies. When used strategically (the original Avatar) and/or thoughtfully (the original Tron ) can really help elevate, if not define the story. I’ve found that all too many a time CGI is used as gravy, a substitute for plot or sometimes the plot itself (most of the MCU movies). You gotta at least tip your hat to Marty; relentless digital F/X does not a movie plot make. Consider Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Episode One for those keeping track.
Besides Lucas finally able to actualize his winding space opera to define the origin, rise, fall and rise again of Sith Lord Darth Vader, the man could not wait to play with his new ILM toys. Involving green screens. Lots of green screens. Almost entirely green screens save a few hundred matches and f*cking around with some timeline. I read that actors Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor had quite a time finding their marks on set. Why you may ask? The answer was simple: no setting. Meaning nothing but a bare stage with f*cking green screens surrounding them. And only green screens. Since this was a relatively new process—Lucas did this on a grand scale here with little doubt he was tooling in the ILM basement for a while—the actors felt wobbly on their feet to orient themselves scene after scene. The physical scenery was not there to chance, so it was rather like thespian vertigo. Might explain why Lucas’ foray back into his Jedi saga came across a bit iffy to critics and fans alike. That and the writing was lumpy.
That was almost a quarter century ago (yes, that long, long ago), and times have changed. We have a new generation of young actors who grew up with the green stuff and now know how to adapt. Which is why I found Steinfeld’s performance a bit of a wonder. Imagine. How tricky was it for Jinn and young Ben Kenobi to find their places when there was essentially no places to be found. Sure, post-production took care of that, digitally dotting the Ts and crossing the Is. With Bee, all these CGI light years later it should be in awe of how current actors work with principals who are not there.
What I am diving at? Check out this dumb but relevant example: Around the time the animated/live action version of the lasagna-loving cat Garfield made it to theaters, I saw on TMZ (don’t judge) how star Breckin Meyer applied a grade school version of The Method. He just knew how weird cats can behave and just pretended he was petting CGI Garfield, scolding CGI Garfield for picking on dopey CGI pup Odie and just pretending to carry CGI Garfield in his arms. He was all about a having cranky cat as his pet, who was not there. He even joked about he got into character, which was kinda cute. Watching cats be cats and also something along the lines of him played doting Jon and forgot to leave “Garfield” on the set, cradling a cat which could’ve given Schrodinger a run for his money. It was very amusing, as well as a simple explanation how far CGI has evolved. The Garfield movie dropped in 2004, five long years after Phantom. Between that film and the next “big deal” Star Wars chapter he was the lead in Michael Bay’s appropriated flop The Island dripping with CGI as plot. And canned acting. And Scarlet Johansen.
Where was I? Again?
Phantom was almost a quarter century ago (yes, that long, long ago), and times have changed. Garfield (a fluffy kind of movie, so to speak) had a new generation of young actors (save Bill Murray) who grew up with the green stuff and now know how to adapt. Which is how I found Steinfeld’s performance a bit of a wonder (more on that later). Imagine. How tricky was it for Jinn and young Ben Kenobi to find their places when there was essentially no places to be found. Sure, post-production took care of that, digitally dotting the Ts and crossing the Is. With Bee, all these CGI light years later it should be in awe of how current actors work with principals who are not there.
SPOILER ALERT. Again. Please forgive me. I still hate them things.
If you caught the recent entry—as of this time of writing—in the Ant-Man trilogy in the MCU something was lost and something was gained thanks to an over-application of CGI. We lost the Pym/Lang family dynamic, but hey! We got introduced to Kang (one of Marvel Comics’ most slippery of baddies). K and I found the first two films great, and that’s coming from a guy who has collected Marvel comics since age 12 and could take or leave the MCU. As of this installment the third movie suffered from a lack of story progression and way, way too much CGI eczema. I’ll bust on that for another time.
You see what made the first two Ant-Man movies fun was the family element buoyed by nifty use of relevant F/X. Scott Lang’s newfound quantum tech was the star. It was him accidentally finding a place to be thanks to Dr Pym’s tech (which invited a lot of cautionary tales about misusing said tech). There was the penultimate key scene where Pym warned Scott of going full quantum. Of course he did; he was trying to rescue his kid. This is where CGI fantasy flicks hop the tracks. They forget they’re movies, not some theses. Most MCU movies are just this side of streaming ads. Well, kinda like the old TransFormers cartoon.
So, yeah. I love cool digital F/X in action movies, but only if they move the plot along. The third Ant-Man chapter failed miserably. Pixels over the family feel of the first two. I’ve discovered that most s/f films stick with you because of a family element. Examples: all the Star Trek movies. Cult faves like the original TRON and The Last Starfighter. Spielberg’s ET and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. And let’s not ignore the Star Wars saga. One can always—for good or for ill—identify with family. If you consider it the Transformers are family, too. Prime is dad. Arcee is mom. Bee is the restless, favorite son always eager to please. And Shatter and Dropkick are the bratty cousins.
Since we had our principals secured, story bounding along, a sense of urgency and a bonding between two disparate yet kindred spirits there came my fave technical aspect of Bee. Unlike most CGI propelled staging in modern movies, Bee had a solid three act structure. Key word is solid. Almost all movies follow this structure, put precious few are edited in such a tidy fashion. It fed my b*tch of a muse pacing, and it was—dare I say—graceful. This flick was two hours long and packed with a lot of detail (despite the simple plot device). Didn’t feel that way. Knight constructed a nostalgic, action packed live action cartoon tribute to a pretty seminal 80s after school cartoon. With aplomb. I can almost image our director on set directing wearing Optimus Prime pajama pants. He really liked his job, and the fun was infectious.
Okay, admittedly we’ve seen this kinda story with Bee before. Why again? Because when done well it works. The classic two misfits find each other when their true family is not available. They share a common bond and get each others’ backs, especially when a mutual threat rears an ugly head. Heads. Did Cena’s count? It’s classic and the story and directing had some real panache. Fun for the fans of both the CGI movies and the old skool cartoons, and TransFormers fans in general. Old and young.
One more thing: Bee was supposed to be a prequel to the TransFormers‘ movie franchise proper (IE before the events of the 2007 release), and this flick ended on a classic and cool cliffhanger.
Maybe a “Cliffjumper” might be more apt. No?
Hey. Where y’all going?
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Doy. A great Saturday afternoon adventure flick, for TransFormers fans young, old and the curious. Roll out!
The Stray Observations…
- “Please? It’s my birthday.”
- Perhaps there’s a bit much 80s, relics and all. Nice chunk of nostalgia, though.
- Look at the price of gas. Wish I could drive back then.
- “You’ve Got The Touch.” Hardy har-har.
- K says bees like omelets. Right. Sure. Okay.
- Objects in mirror are closer…
- K with delight: “It’s Optimus Prime!” Everyone loves Prime.
- “They literally call themselves Decepticons! That doesn’t set off any red flags?!?”
- *John Dykstra, ASC, is an American special effects artist, pioneer in the development of the use of computers in filmmaking and recipient of three Academy Awards, among many other awards and prizes. He was one of the original employees of Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects and computer graphics division of Lucasfilm. He is well known as the special effects lead on the original Star Wars, helping bring the original visuals for lightsabers, space battles between X-Wings and TIE fighters, and Force powers to the screen (info courtesy of Wikipedia).
- “This is unsafe what you’re doing!”
The Next Time…
When a new generation fighter jet powered by AI goes rouge, its up to Jaime Foxx and his crack team of pilots to bring it down.
With extremely extreme Stealth.