Origin stories done right:  'Bumblebee,' 'Aquaman'

By Tom Von Malder | Apr 02, 2019
Photo by: Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) practices with Bumblebee on the beach in "Bumblebee."

Owls Head — Bumblebee (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 113 min.). There is a sweetness at the core of this latest Transformers film, as it tells how Bumblebee first came to Earth and bonded with the 18-year-old girl who discovered him as a yellow VW Beetle car. The film does have intense action sequences as well -- the all-computer-generated battle between the Decepitcons and the Autobots for control of Cybertron opens the film -- but there is nice development of characters Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld of "The Edge of Seventeen," the last two "Pitch Perfect" films), who finds and names Bumblebee, and Trey (Jorge Lendeborg Jr. of "Love, Simon"), her shy neighbor who finally gets the courage to ask her out and is swept along in the adventure.

As Cybertron is falling to the Decepticons, Optimus Prime sends B-127, soon to be known as Bumblebee, to Earth to protect the planet until the scattered Autobots can reassemble there. For this film, which is set in 1987, the animators, under director Travis Knight, have gone back to base their Transformers on the original, first generation designs of the comics and TV series. The film also captures the vibe of 1980s California with its colors, costumes and strong, hit-laden music soundtrack.

As we meet Charlie, she is unlike any of her classmates, dressing darker and listening to The Smiths a lot. Basically, she is just waiting out until she graduates high school and can leave home, still not over the death of her father two years earlier. She works for a hot dog vendor at the boardwalk amusement park and is the butt of jokes made by her more glamorous classmates. She has been trying to complete the rebuild of a muscle car her father and she had worked on, but with no success. As she desperately wants to replace her moped with a car, she is delighted when she uncovers the VW Beetle at her Uncle Hank's marine repair shop. Uncle Hank (Len Cariou of "Spotlight," "Thirteen Days") gives her the car as a birthday present. While she is working on the car, Charlie is startled to fine it is a Transformer robot.

A pair of Decepticons intercept a radio signal sent by Bumblebee, whose ability to speak has been damaged in a fight with another Decepticon, and race to Earth, where they enlist the aid of the U.S. military to track B-127 down. John Cena, the film's most obvious weak link, plays Sector 7's Major Burns, who had an early battle with B-127, after he landed on Earth, but lost his prey. Burns does, however, have enough sense to warn his superiors about the possibility of treachery by the aliens, pointing out that they even call themselves Decepticons, but his protest is ignored.

Comedic highlights of the film include a police car chasing Bumblebee and its two teenage passengers, and Bumblebee acting all bull-in-a-china-shop when he is left alone and decides to investigate Charlie's house. There is a healthy assortment of extras, highlighted by a look at building the sets and recapturing the 1980s (19:57). The outstanding animation work was done by ILM. Additional parts of the making-of feature include an overview (3:54), acting with something that is not there (7:04), basing the film's Transformers on G1 models (10:02) and the various versions of the VW that were used, including a specially made electric version, so Steinfeld would not have to drive a stick shift all the time, and the version with a cameraman perch on top (6:20). There also are nine deleted and extended scenes, two of which involved two of Charlie's hot dog stand co-workers who dump her for being too strange and an amusing bit in which the dishwasher and refrigerator in Charlie's home come alive (19:05); five outtakes that generally involve Cena trying, and failing, to be funny (9:32); a Sector 7 recruitment film with Cena (50 secs.); a breakdown of the various Transformers involved in the opening battle scene (3:56); and both a min-comic book and motion comic (9:19) of Bumblebee's next adventure. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Aquaman (Warner Bros., 2Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 143 min.). The best part of "Aquaman" is director James Wan's world-building, aided by teams of excellent animators. Together, they bring to life an often breathtaking underwater world of Atlantis and five of the other kingdoms of the once great race that was submerged by a cataclysm centuries ago. The seven kingdoms are Atlantis, Xebel, The Fishermen, The Brine, The Deserters, The Trench and the unseen Lost Nation.

Aquaman is played by Jason Momoa (he also played Aquaman in "Justice League" and "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice"). His human name is Arthur Curry and, in flashbacks, we see is birth to parents Tom Curry (Temeura Morrison of "Once Were Warriors"), a human lighthouse keeper in Amnesty Bay, Maine, and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman of HBO's "Big Little Lies," the film "Boy Erased"), an estranged queen of Atlantis. While Arthur is still an infant, soldiers from Atlantis force Atlanna to return to the undersea kingdom. Later in his youth, Arthur is trained underwater by Vulko (Willem Dafoe of "The Florida Project," "The Great Wall"), his mother's advisor. Not only is Arthur a great swimmer, but he can breathe underwater and communicate with marine life. We see his development at ages 3, 9, 13 and 16.

Because of his adventures in the two previous DC films, Arthur has developed a bit of a reputation, which leads to some of the film's humor. Things turn more serious, though, when Princess Mera (Amber Heard of "London Fields," "Machete Kills") finds Arthur and warns that the forces of Atlantis are about to invade the surface world. The prime instigator is Arthur's half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson of the "Insidious" franchise), who actually holds the crown that should be Arthur's. Orm will ultimately enlist the aid of Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of "The Greatest Showman," the upcoming "Candyman" remake), whom Aquaman made an enemy of by letting his pirate father die in a submarine during the opening action sequence.

The movie is definitely over-stuffed -- it actually only runs about 130 minutes, as there are 13 minutes of closing credits, mostly for all the digital work -- and sometimes it is a bit confusing as to who is who or whether they are good or bad, but the undersea habitats are incredible, as are many of the various Atlantean species and their marine-life vehicles in the huge, closing underwater battle sequence (which seems to have a lot of unnecessary deaths to me). In particular, The Trench evoke director Wan's previous horror work in the "Insidious" and "The Conjuring" films. The Trench's attack on a boat carrying Aquaman and Mera is one of the film's highlights.

The extras are almost overwhelming, being more than 82 minutes in total. The best is a look at creating the world of the film, including a submarine set that actually submerged, the sunken galleon set and filming the chase and rooftop destruction in Sicily (actually recreated on an Australian stage). This piece is 19:28 long. Also noteworthy are a look at Momoa becoming Aquaman, including 2.5 months of training and running into a Comic Co0n panel clutching a trident (13:09); a piece on Wan, himself an artist, and how the animators created the underwater hair (7:42); Abdul-Mateen going through Black Panther's equipment and weapons (6:29); scene study breakdowns of the sub, Sicily and The Trench action (10:15); and a look at the seven races of Atlantis, hosted by Dolph Lundgren ("Creed II," TV's "Arrow"), who plays King Nereus (6:59).

Additionally, there are short pieces on Kidman and Heard's characters (5:31), the villains' training, showing a lot of wire work (6:21), fun bits with Momoa and Heard (3:12), the props, weapons and "ships" in the underwater battle scene (4:40), the underwater creatures (7:15) and creating the underwater environments (5:42). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Second Act (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 104 min.). Jennifer Lopez ("Maid in Manhattan"), also a producer, plays 40-year-old Maya Vargas, who is upset over being passed over for a manager's position at Value Shop, where she has worked 15 years and where her innovative ideas -- live online shopping views so customers can pick out specific cuts of meat or pieces of fruit and vegetables, and the weekly Monday Mom's Club meetings in the store -- have boosted sales. The problem for management is that she lacks a college degree. Maya feels that street smarts should equal book smarts.

Maya's godson/nephew Dilly (Dalton Harrod of "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," the upcoming "NOS4A2" miniseries) hears of Maya's plight and decides to increase her online presence by creating a Facebook and other Web pages for her, only he also makes up her Harvard education, Peace Corps experience and so on. Dilly even applies for some jobs for her, one of which is with F&C (Franklin & Clarke), a cosmetics firm that did business with Value Shop. Impressed by Maya's interview, CEO Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams of TV's "Everwood," the film "Hair") hires Maya as a product development consultant, despite the objection of his own daughter, company vice president Zoe (Vanessa  Hudgens of the three "High School Musical" films, "Machete Kills").

On the home front, Maya's boyfriend of five years (Milo Ventimiglia of TV's "Heroes," "This Is Us" as Trey) breaks up with her because he wants children and she does not at this time. She does have the support of her best friend Joan (Leah Remini of TV's "The King of Queens," "Kevin Can Wait").

At her new job, Maya is given three months to come up with a totally new and profitable organic cosmetics line, while Zoe's team is tasked with altering an existing line to make it more organic. Some of the film's humor comes from Maya's team members, including Charlyne Yip as heights-challenged Ariana Ng, Annaleigh Ashford as development assistant Hildy Ostrander and Alan Aisenberg as scientist Chase, who has been working on products for cats.

The film goes the usual places and, midway, one unexpected place that makes this portion of Maya's life a true second act, as in second chance. It lifts the film into heart-warming places. The director is Peter Segal, who helmed "50 First Dates" and "Get Smart."

Good as the film is, the extras are near worthless, just four promo ads of Ventimiglia, the women, Lopez and Remini's off-screen friendship and working with ones you love, all totaling less than four minutes. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 1/2 star

Nemesis 2: Nebula, Nemesis 3: Time Lapse and Nemesis 4: Cry of Angels (1995, 1996, 1996, MVD Rewind Collection Blu-ray, R, 248 min.). Writer/director Albert Pyon made four sequels to his 1992 film, "Nemesis." These three all starred bodybuilder Sue Price as Alex, whose special DNA makeup could be used to threaten the cyborgs, who won a war against humans in 2057. In concept, it is a ripoff of "The Terminator" franchise, executed in awful, low-budget fashion, with lackluster acting in the first two films here.

In "Nemesis 2" (85 min.), Alex's mother escapes with her infant daughter into the past (1980, Eastern Africa), where she is promptly killed by rebel soldiers. The baby is rescued and raised by a friendly tribe, but then cyborg Nebula (Chad Stahelski) comes from the future and tries to kill Alex. (The time machine, by the way, looks like a buried Rubik's Cube.) The film makes a point of Alex's mother giving her a necklace with important information, but Alex never triggers it. This film is pretty boring.

In "Nemesis 3" (90 min.), things get worse -- for the viewer, that is. It is now 1998 and the cyborgs have sent back Farnsworth 2 (Tim Thomerson  of "Near Dark," the "Trancers" films), a cyborg, to retrieve Alex, as the future cyborgs want to see if her DNA is stronger than any of that of her 20 half-sisters in the future. Soon, though, Farnsworth and his team, which includes two bizarre blonde female bodybuilders, are lobbing rockets at her, so the do-not-kill order seems off the table. Also shot in Arizona, the setting looks the same as the previous film. Some equally bizarre camera blurring is done when the cyborgs walk or travel in jeeps. The film opens cheaply, with a five-minute recap of the last film and then, because Alex has lost much of her memory, there is an 8-minute segment of more flashbacks to the last film. Basically nothing happens for the first 14 minutes. Shortly thereafter, there is another 10-minute segment with even more flashbacks to the last film.

Ales does meet a soldier (Nobert Weisser as Edson; in "Nemesis 4," he plays Tokuda), who might or might not be on her side. Plus, she kind of picks up sweet, brain-damaged Johnny (Xavier Declie of "Adrenalin: Feel the Rush," the recent "Vengeance: A Love Story"), as the film jumps back 22 hours to fill in Alex's memory. Apparently sometime between the two films, Alex triggered the pendant and learned of her future sisters.

"Nemesis 4" (79 min.) actually has a better, more coherent plot, but stoops to a lot of topless nudity by Price. The character of Alex has somehow gotten to the future, as it is now 2080, and she has been working for Bernardo (Andrew Divoff of "Air Force One," "Wishmaster") as a paid assassin for 13 years. Bernardo -- all of Divoff's talky scenes show just his head in unknown circumstances --  says Alex is losing her edge and this next job should be her last. In this future, even humans are cybernetically enhanced, leading to one of the weirdest sex scenes ever. When Alex's target turns out to be the only son of a major crime syndicate leader, soon every assassin is after her for the $10 million reward.

After the hit, Alex's get-away driver (Nicholas Guest of "National Lampoon's Christmas," "Trading Places" as Earl Typhoon) convinces her to have sex in the car, before trying to kill her. Apparently, Alex likes to use her legs to make her kills. Eventually, Alex, who has been hanging out in the same unpopulated, desolate building area, asks an acquaintance (Simon Poland of "United 93," "Crossing the Line") to kill her so he can collect the bounty. The film ends with lengthy actor identifications, as Pyon struggles to reach an acceptable running time. The "real" movie lasts only 72 min.

This release contains three segments with Pyon talking about each film, over film clips that are not specific to what he is saying. For "Nemesis 2," he talks about how everything is based on single camera set-ups, with no moving cameras. There also were no external light sources and he aimed the movie to be like "The Naked Prey" (1965, starring producer/director Cornel Wilde). The piece lasts 30:38. Of "Nemesis 3," Pyon (13 min.) talks about shooting the two films back-to-back, and how he ran out of time and money, making the story and action more threadbare. The memory flashback bits from the first film were used to stretch the film to reach the 95-minute length required for foreign markets. Finally, for "Nemesis 4," Pyon (19:37) says it was only shot in five days, using many of the actors he had on hand for reshoots for "Adrenaline: Fear the Rush." He says he wished he had more time and a better script, but praises Price for her bold choices. The film was intended, he said, as a cyberpunk film.

Pyon is the same director who brought us "Alien from L.A." in 1988 and "Cyborg" in 1989. Grades: Nemesis 2: 2 stars; Nemesis 3 1.5 stars; Nemesis 4 2 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Archer: Danger Island, The Complete Season Nine (20th Century Fox DVD, NR, 179 min.). The release contains all eight episodes which saw Sterling Archer, a semi-functioning alcoholic seaplane pilot, wander about the lush South Pacific island of Mitimotu in 1939. While the rest of the world is concerned about the impending second world war, Archer is mainly concerned about who is buying his next drink. Along with co-pilot Pam, Archer confronts quicksand, cannibals, super-intelligent monkeys, poison darts and pirates. The show is gag- and pun-filled.

The series features the voices of H. Jon Benjamin as Archer, Jessica Walter as Archer’s acid tongued mother and hotel owner, Malory Archer, Aisha Tyler as island royalty and local revolutionary Princess Lanaluakalani,  Judy Greer as the abandoned heiress Charlotte Vandertunt, Chris Parnell as the obvious German spy posing as businessman Siegbert Fuchs,  Amber Nash as Archer’s loyal sidekick Pam Poovey, Adam Reed as impeccably uniformed French Capitaine Reynaud and Lucky Yates as audacious scarlet macaw Crackers. Extras include a making-of featurette and Crackers' costumed playings. Grade: season 3 stars

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