Bumblebee 2018 ***

bumblebee-2018-001-hailee-steinfeld-bumblebeeHow about a film about a towering yellow robot learning to love The Smiths? That might sound great, but Bumblebee is also a Transformers movie, so you have to sit through a lot of rubbish about Autobots and Decepticons to get to the funny bits. This is the first modern Transformers movie without Michael Bay directing, and they’ve clearly rethought the running time (not three hours long!), the usual sexism, racism and massive dumps of exposition are missing (a female writer!), and the whole film is more of a throwback towards 80’s movies like ET or Mac and Me. Pop star Hailie Steinfeld is the lucky girl who buys a VW Beetle from a scrapyard only to find it has magical powers like Herbie. It’s an Autobot on the run from Decepticons, two muscle cars which also transform into huge robots. Wrestler John Cena leads the army forces trying to get in the way of the big robot battle. Bumblebee is a cute film, not as loud or bombastic as the other Transfomers movies, and actually kind of small and charming in comparison. 80’s music is slathered on, complete with pop-culture references to ALF, The Breakfast Club and somehow, The Smiths.

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Cannibal Apocalypse 1980 ***

saxonThere’s no shortage of odd entries in the Italian Eurotrash genre, but Antonio Margheriti’s 1980 thriller Cannibal Apocalypse has some unique selling points. The central one is John Saxon, always a strong performer, and doing great work as a Vietnam veteran who develops a desire to bite women. He’s not alone; there’s a plague of cannibalism brought back to urban USA by returning soldiers, and one of the men under his command has the virus. Margheriti’s film was somewhat ahead of its time with the Vietnam angle, but there’s no pretentions here, as Cannibal Apocalypse develops a somewhat rabid style through motorcycle chases, shoot-outs and occasional gore. While not exactly a cinema classic, it’s a tasty little B movie that managed to do something original in a moribund genre; the shotgun and flamethrower action scenes are to be commended to hardened horror and action veterans.

Super 8 2011 ***

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A refreshing alternative to the usual summer popcorn movies, Super 8 harks back to the 80’s style of Gremlins or The Goonies, as a group of children with a penchant for making home-movies discover an alien presence which has escaped from a government train which derails near their town. Writer/director JJ Abrams does a nice job in conjuring up the feel of 1979, and the scenes in which the kids create their own movie are lovingly done, with the final result playing engagingly over the final credits. Kyle Chandler also does nice work as an investigating cop, and while the final confrontation with the alien goes on too long, Abrams manages to pull out a few emotive plot-points that stop it from becoming a CGI-fest. Super 8 is a charming and light-hearted blockbuster for a age when bombast has become the norm.

The Wedding Singer 1998 ****

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Frank Coraci’s 1998 comedy looks back to the 80’s, but seems like a time-capsule of the late 90’s now. Was Adam Sandler ever so charming? Was Drew Barrymore ever so cute? Could rom-coms be so breezy and carefree, light on sex-jokes and with just a few relevant cultural references to pin the story on? Comparing The Wedding Singer with a leaden new generation project like 27 Dresses or Friends With Benefits suggests we didn’t know the good times until they were gone. Sandler plays Robbie, a wedding singer who falls for Julia (Barrymore), but they already have weddings planned to other people. Things are resolved throw a few funny songs from Sandler, great cameos from Steve Buscemi and Jon Lovitz, and a sunny disposition all round; comedy romance seems to have become somewhat sour since 1998, making The Wedding Singer something of a throw-back to a throwback.

The Last Days of Disco 1998 ****

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Whit Stillman’s brand of talky, literate, character-driven films has never produced anything less than scintillating; this 1998 film is an ideal starting point for anyone yet to be charmed by his creations. Set in the waning years of the disco phenomenon, Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny are two free-spirited girls whose life revolves around clubbing in a Manhattan, Studio 54 style establishment. Fans of Stillman’s work will relish the crisp dialogue and defiance of cliché; recurring characters also pop up from his earlier films Metropolitan and Barcelona. And the disco soundtrack is lovingly chosen; rather than go for cheap laughs, Stillman captures the moment as his characters focus on the detail of their personal dramas oblivious to the bigger picture of cultural chance. Jennifer Beals and Robert Sean Leonard co-star in this cheerful, delightful film.

The Squid and The Whale 2005 ***

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Jesse Eisenberg has noted that many directors have seen him as an ideal surrogate for their personal projects; writer/director Noah Baumbach used him well for The Squid and The Whale. Eisenberg plays Walk, a young man growing up in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the 1980’s. His intellectual parents (Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels) are in the throes of a painful divorce, and Walk and his brother Frank (Owen Kline) are caught in the middle. As they contemplate their parents’ infidelities, the two boys face up to the complex world of the adults; the result is a poignant and sensitive account of the difficult choices a family faces through divorce, beautifully played by a game cast. The title is explained in the final, memorable scene.

The Night of the Juggler 1980 ***

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Any alternative history of American cinema should include this surprisingly raw studio thriller from 1980; James Brolin plays Sean Boyd, a tough cop who has alienated many of his fellow policemen by taking a hard line on corruption. He’s forced to confront his contemporaries when his daughter is kidnapped in error; the culprit Gus Soltic (Cliff Gorman) doesn’t realize that it’s not the daughter of a wealthy industrialist he was hoping to use for an extortion plot. The first half of Robert Butler’s film, adapted from a novel by William P McGivern, is a terrific chase sequence in and around New York’s Central Park, with Boyd battling to get his daughter back. The second half is less sensational, but still taut, and cop and quarry get closer. The Night of the Juggler is something of a social document of NYC circa 1980; street gangs, porno stores, and police corruption ideally embodied by the perennially sweaty Dan Hedaya.