Then Playing — Bumblebee; Stuber; Just Mercy


Bumblebee (Travis Knight, 2018). A prequel spinoff of the Transformers films, Bumblebee benefits immensely from the natural comparison to the unwatchable eyesores that director Michael Bay foisted on a helpless world. Making his first live action effort following wide acclaim for the animated Kubo and the Two Strings, director Travis Knight uses the film’s late–nineteen-eighties setting as a prompt to evoke the Spielbergian wonders of that bygone movie decade. At its core, Bumblebee is E.T the Extra-Terrestrial with the waddling green alien replaced by an intricate robot that regularly masquerades as a VW and the tween boy cast aside in favor of a high school girl. As a blockbuster throwback,  Knight’s film is enjoyable enough, brisk in its action and suitably basic in its emotional content. Hailee Steinfeld is engaging as ever in the role of our heroine, gamely engaging in the weirdly complex acting required to bond with a towering, childlike robot that will be digitally drawn in well after shooting is complete. The film bogs down when it the narrative is obliged to engage with the staggeringly stupid mythos of the Transformers Cinematic Universe, a tar pit of inanities and illogical from which no joy can escape.


Stuber (Michael Dowse, 2019). Repurposing the buddy action comedies of the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties by having the mismatched pair come together through the geographic algorithms of a ride-sharing app is inspired. And that’s the sole clever element of this noisy, witless film. Directed by Michael Dowse as if he just learned about the narrative mechanics of film the day before and forgot about half of it overnight, Stuber thunders and blunders through utterly forgettable mayhem. Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani do their respective schticks, tediously.

just mercy

Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2019). Based on Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy brings laudable solemnity and narrative rigor to the ongoing social ill of a broken justice system in the U.S., skewed strongly against Black men and other citizens who forcibly kept outside the zone of presumed innocence which, it is increasingly clear, is one of the most damaging manifestations of white privilege. Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan, a recent Harvard law grad who takes it as his vocation and mission to represent Alabama death row inmates through the appeals process, an endeavor met with condescending hostility in the film’s late–nineteen-eighties and early nineteen-nineties timeframe. (Some Alabamans aren’t exactly keen on principles of basic equality now.) Working from a screenplay he cowrote with Andrew Lanham, Cretton makes a movie that is thoughtful and non-hyperbolic in its implicit argument for sounder social and legal justice, all the better to win over the depoliticized viewer who hasn’t given more than a passing thought to the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. The film’s power is in its plainness, its stern adherence to a style of station-to-station advocacy cinema that’s been all but abandoned as major studios have been diverted from movies for adults. The cast is uniformly strong, with especially fine work from Jordan, Tim Blake Nelson as a man coerced into giving false testimony to lessen his own punishment, and both Jamie Foxx and Rob Morgan as incarcerated men who receive legal assistance as they battle a willfully blind state government perversely committed to putting them to death.

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