The 300 Week 51: Transformers Reboot + Aquaman = Bumblebee Man (or Maybe Bumblebee Tuna)


Sup, you soaking-wet meatheads, and welcome back to The 300, my hypermasculine, protein-powder-fueled attempt to see more than 300 movies in theaters in 2018. I’ll be watching new releases, classics, hidden gems, and festival films to experience the wide world of cinema in all its forms. With so much moviegoing variety, there’s probably something you’d be interested in as well. If not, you should lift more, bro.

As always, there are three rules for The 300:

  • The movie must be at least 40 minutes long, meeting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ definition of a feature film.
  • I must watch the movie at a movie theater, screening room, or outdoor screening venue.
  • While I can watch movies I’ve seen before 2018, I cannot count repeated viewings of the same film in 2018 multiple times.

I was hoping to catch a Christmas classic on the big screen in the lead up to Christmas, but catching up with family in my hometown took precedent. While I didn’t get to see It’s a Wonderful Life or The Shop Around the Corner on the big screen as I’d originally intended, I did watch three high-profile blockbusters coming out at the end of the year. And what says Christmas better than the crass consumerism of sequels, reboots, and superhero IPs intent on taking all of your money? Ho ho ho!

One more week left for The 300, and I should be able to hit 320 by year’s end. So much time spent at the theater. I can’t wait to get back to the land of the living (aka streaming things at home like a normal human being).

And so, onward.

314 of 300: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer
Country: USA
Seen at AMC Saratoga 14 (San Jose, CA)
Thursday, December 20th

I saw Mary Poppins Returns with my mom, which is an ideal way to watch the film. The sequel (which has the feel of a reboot) is a nostalgia fest geared toward kids who repeatedly mainlined the original Mary Poppins growing up. On the way out of the theater, my mom and I agreed Mary Poppins Returns was fine, and we haven’t talked about it since. The songs are all right, but none of the lyrics or melodies linger. The final song, “Nowhere to Go But Up,” is arguably the best of the lot, but it feels like a pale imitation of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” (My other semi-fav is “The Cover Is Not the Book,” which is way bawdier than expected.) There’s even a not-as-good version of “Step In Time,” with a dance number confined to a courtyard rather than spanning the rooftops of London. This “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” sequence also includes some BMX stunts, in one of the movie’s handful of embarrassing “This ain’t your daddy’s Mary Poppins” flourishes. Lin-Manuel Miranda should have helped co-write the music.

The songwriting in Mary Poppins Returns mirrors the narrative shortcomings of the film. The sequel is essentially like the first movie but less good, a common problem with so many sequels and reboots. Michael (Ben Wishaw) works at the bank like his dad, and Jane (Emily Mortimer) is a political activist like her mom. The kids take a magic bath (rather than magically clean their room), go on a semi-animated adventure in fine china (rather than in a chalk pavement picture), meet with an upside down woman (rather than an upside down man), get lost in the fog and are helped by a lamplighter with a bad accent (rather than a chimney sweep with a bad accent), and extol the virtues of helium balloons (rather than flying kites). It makes me wish that the sequel had done its own thing and sang its own tune rather than trying to retread old ground. Emily Blunt is a good Mary Poppins, playing the role a bit like Julie Andrews by way of a mean Doctor Who. Yet this play-it-safe mentality is the MO for a lot of Disney’s live-action movies lately. (At least Mary Poppins didn’t use magic to sell people luggage.)

The original Mary Poppins is one of mom’s favorite children’s movies, and we watched it together a lot. Mary Poppins is still a classic, but my mom dutifully suffered through plenty of bad kids’ movies for the sake of my brother and me. I still remember how she drove us to see The Care Bears Adventure in Wonderland, Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw, and Benji the Hunted in theaters. Mary Poppins Returns isn’t anywhere near as bad as those films, but at least those movies risked something small and did their own thing. Maybe this is just the nature of childhood, but I remember a few of the songs from that Care Bears movie more than I remember tunes from Mary Poppins Returns. (Rapping Cheshire Cat and Grumpy Bear > A bunch of lamplighters dancing on a claustrophobic set.)

315 of 300: Bumblebee (2018)

Director: Travis Knight
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Adlon
Country: USA
Seen at AMC Saratoga 14 (San Jose, CA)
Friday, December 21st

I’m glad that Michael Bay’s run with Transformers is over. We can finally get some watchable fighting-robot movies that aren’t oozing with ‘splosions, sexism, and ‘Murican machismo. Travis Knight’s Bumblebee is old school and very 80s, mostly in the best possible way, tapping into Spielbergian wonderment while centering the heart of the movie around a surprisingly touching story about the loss of a parent. Think E.T. + Short Circuit + John Hughes. We’ve had five Transformers movies written by meatheads, so here’s one written by a woman; you can tell the difference (and I mean that as a compliment to Christina Hodson’s screenplay).

Bumblebee opens with a massive battle on Cybertron and a thrilling throwdown on Earth, all of it directed with steady competence focused on clarity of movement and choreography. Great action sequences are about the audience’s ability to read cause and effect, and throughout the movie, Knight makes sure that spatial relations and the size of each character are addressed to play up the danger and daring of the set pieces. (I wonder if Knight’s background in animation helped with this.) Bumblebee, who spends much of the movie in a state of mute pacifist amnesia, fights like a baby face wrestler. He uses arm drags, the environment, momentum, and reversals to win. The little guy needs to be be smarter to outwit and overcome his bigger, ruthless, better-armed adversaries. Look, it’s a bunch of fights that tell a story and reveal character in the process. How old school!

For the most part, though, Bumblebee centers around Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a gearhead Smiths fanatic who lost her father and resents her mother for remarrying. Like Elliott finding a surrogate parent in E.T. (The 300 Week 21), Charlie finds a friend and imperfect father figure in Bumblebee. It’s at once a story about letting go and a story about a girl and her dog/a girl and her horse. Maybe the 80s teen movie plot runs 10 minutes longer than needed in a movie that’s also about transforming robots at war, but there’s something so earnest about this bond between Charlie and Bumblebee. I did not mind; big stories (relatively speaking; a $100 million budget is no longer big-big, but small-to-medium-big) could use more intimate, unexpected texture rather than being punched and packaged like widgets.

I’ve seen some snark about Charlie being a way cooler teen than actual teens in the 80s. While that is the trap of nostalgia, it’s also the nature of so many adventure stories. Why can’t our heroes be better versions of ourselves: better taste in music, better with their hands, better in danger, better able to articulate their emotions, more empathetic, and more capable of processing the emotions we could not deal with when we were younger? Heroes, whether giant yellow space robots or teenage girls in the Bay Area, can be our better, cooler angels.

316 of 300: Aquaman (2018)

Director: James Wan
Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe
Country: USA
Seen at AMC Saratoga 14 (San Jose, CA)
Monday, December 24th

Aquaman is at its best when the movie leans into its silliness. When it’s not silly, it’s a bit of a DCEU slog. Sure, it’s too long, has three different intros, one too many villains, and that Pitbull song is f**king atrocious (“Ah, but which Pitbull song?” you say to me, to which I reply, laughing, “The one in the movie, but yes, all of them too”), yet the movie won me over by the end. Picture a bro-y comic book fanboy playing DnD and Warhammer 40K with his marine-biologist brother. That is Aquaman, a movie that reeks of protein powder, pewter minis, and Mountain Dew.

I wonder how the movie would be if they just chopped this down by 25-30 minutes. I cared more about the weird undersea political wrangling and mythology than a burgeoning textbook romance between two attractive leads who have no chemistry together. For the first half of the movie, Patrick Wilson has the thankless job of keeping the movie watchable as he tries to unite various underwater cultures into some sort of mega-army or whatever. Even his trident battle with Aquaman in Atlantis feels a little rote. Once Jason Momoa and Amber Heard wind up on land in Sicily, their share of the story finally gets good. Perhaps the trident battle was done mostly by the second unit and effects crew? There’s more life and inventive derring-do along the rooftops of Italy than in some submerged seen-it-before gladiatorial combat.

By the last third, Aquaman becomes a goofy fantasy epic with Lovecraftian monsters, crab people, and the scope of a Lord of the Rings knock-off. It takes a long while to get to the good stuff, but the good stuff is very good because it is so enjoyably imaginative/kooky. If I had to compare it to Wonder Woman, it’s nowhere near as solid. Yet I find it interesting that Wonder Woman is best in the beginning in and middle, with the last set piece not as good as what came before. In Aquaman, the beginning and middle are pretty bland-to-unremarkable, though its final acts are extremely strong. Those last acts must lift, bro.

Current runtime of The 300: 33,322 minutes (23 days, 3 hours, 22 minutes)

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.