REVIEW: Baby Driver

12 07 2017

I saw Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” twice in the span of a month and fixated primarily on how it functioned as a new take on the movie musical. (If you want my full thoughts on that aspect, check out my piece on Little White Lies – I do far more heavy lifting with the film there.) It is that, but like any great movie, it’s so much more.

It’s a kickass action flick where, for once, the terms “balletic” and “choreographed” are not critical hyperbole but apt, justified descriptions. Wright’s tightly edited escapes, whether by car or by foot, fall in lockstep with their musical inspirations as they play diegetically through the headphones of Ansel Elgort’s titular driver. Is this what it felt like to watch the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence in “Apocalypse Now” back in the 1970s? “Baby Driver” is a giddy rush of cinephilia as Wright treats us to impeccable execution of a bold gambit.

It’s a film about how we relate to culture and to each other. Baby, an archetypal stoic stalwart, suffers from ailments both emotional (still traumatized from being orphaned in a tragic car crash) and physical (tinnitus leaves his ears constantly ringing). As such, he’s never one to communicate in a straightforward fashion. He signs with his deaf foster father. He pulls dialogue from the snippets of movies he sees on TV. He times his vehicular getaways to the music on his iPod (and one with a clickwheel, to boot). He’s more likely to block people out with his headphones and cheap sunglasses than let anyone in – until, of course, he catches a few bars from diner waitress Debra (Lily James).

I could sit here and bang out another few paragraphs trying to convince you of how much “Baby Driver” has to offer. But that might make you feel obliged to sit here and read my words, which will only serve to rob you of the experience of discovering the film’s ecstasy for yourself. There’s probably something you’ll find that did not even occur to me, and the film will motivate you to do so. Wright provides the perfect blend of originality, dazzling technical craft and emotionally invested storytelling to inspire a deeper dive into his movie’s pleasures. A-

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REVIEW: Men, Women & Children

16 12 2014

In 2009, Jason Reitman added a potent subplot to his film “Up in the Air” that dealt with some of the alienation people feel in a depersonalized, technology-laden society.  Five years later, he arrives with “Men, Women & Children,” a dark and moody spiritual cousin to his masterpiece.  It goes beyond the obvious stating that people live text message to text message or email to email.  Underneath it all, they are clearly living orgasm to orgasm.

Reitman finds a new writing partner, Erin Cressida Wilson, to adapt Chad Kultgen’s novel, which is perhaps the only truly honest novel about the realities of living in a digitally mediated society.  The story follows a group of teenagers and their parents, each age group struggling with the temptations of carnality made available at their fingertips.  They all seek intimacy, a rarity in a sea of screen addicts, yet cannot seems to escape their enmeshed existence in the World Wide Web.

It seems as if Reitman, likely by commercial imperatives, had to pull some punches and soften the impact of his film.  How blistering can an excoriation of an Internet pornography obsessed society be if those toxic images are never shown?  How shameful can sexual deviance feel if the acts themselves are artfully avoided?  Reitman did not have to go full NC-17 to make an effective film on this topic, and “Men, Women & Children” suffers from his cautious moves.

Still, the message gets across pretty clearly, provided the audience can put down their iPhones for two hours to listen to it. For once, the youth are neither a fountain of hope nor a convenient object for blame; they are just exploring normal curiosities in the same way that their chief role models did.  In fact, the adults of “Men, Women & Children” are every bit as clueless and juvenile in cyberspace as their kids.  Society is all in this battle together, and no one is above it because it brings out the worst in everyone.

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REVIEW: Divergent

20 11 2014

Roger Ebert once wrote, “Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.”  Keeping that in mind, I approached “Divergent,” the latest in a series of hit YA series adapted for the screen, less as a reviewer and more as a phenomenologist.  What exactly is it that this movie is tapping into?  What function is it fulfilling for viewers?

This was actually a great way to watch the film because otherwise, it provided very little entertainment or enjoyment.  “The Hunger Games” somehow manages to maintain a vague sense of artistic integrity; the assembly of “Divergent,” meanwhile, seems the result of focus groups and marketing executives.  Everything from its color-by-numbers plot to its Top 40-friendly soundtrack feels calculated and inauthentic.

But a deeper look into the heart of Veronica Roth’s story (as adapted for the screen by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor) actually reveals some intriguing thematic strands.  “Divergent” follows Shailene Woodley’s Tris, a teenager in a dystopian Chicago, as she attempts to find her place amongst the rigidly divided factions in her society.  Struggles with belonging and discovering one’s developing identity?  Sounds a lot like high school…

“Divergent” stands out in my mind as being the most directly applicable YA series for its target audience in everything from the frightfulness of not fitting completely into a single neat box or having to earn your place in anything.  Unlike “The Hunger Games,” which casts teenagers in very adult situations, this story speaks directly to teenage concerns.  Regrettably, however, it clouds these messages by involving stereotypical oppressive authoritarian entities like Kate Winslet’s Jeanine.

As “Divergent” moves from the personal from the political in its second half, any momentum it had built up dissipates rather quickly.  The bloated length of 140 minutes certainly does not help matters, quickly converting excitement into boredom.  I remain unsure as to whether or not I will bother to see any of the sequels to the film.  I seem to at least have some understanding of its appeal now, and I feel pretty content with just that.  C2stars





REVIEW: Carrie

19 08 2014

In terms of iconic decades-old horror movies, Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” probably ranks just beside Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”  The 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel gave the world an unforgettable image – prom queen Carrie White soaked in blood – that most people recognize whether or not they actually saw the movie.

De Palma’s film has stood the test of time, however, not just on the stickiness of its imagery.  His take on “Carrie” is frighteningly well-made from a technical perspective, fusing eerie cinematography with a chillingly removed edit.  Not to mention, it is perhaps one of the best examples of fusing the ’70s “New Hollywood” spirit with the emerging commercial blockbuster.

So judging from the enduring strength of the original, there really appeared to be no reason for Kimberly Peirce’s remake of “Carrie” to come along 37 years later.  Thankfully, the film is not an overly reverent retread that matches its original nearly shot-for-shot.  But even so, this “Carrie” is a shadow of its former self that never quite successfully justifies its own existence.

Original “Carrie” screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen updates the story effectively with co-writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, taking into account factors like the rise of the Moral Majority as well as the sad phenomenon of cyberbullying.  In a way, it’s sobering to see how little change there has been in the high school experience for poor Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz).  She is kept woefully uninformed about the real world by her fanatically religious mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) and is thus tormented by her peers for her naïveté.

Moretz’s performance brings all the tenderness from her work as a lonely teenage vampire in “Let Me In,” really allowing us to feel sympathy for poor Carrie.  And in stark opposition, Julianne Moore’s inspiredly demented work makes us absolutely despise Margaret.  (Also notable among the acting corps is Ansel Elgort of “The Fault in Our Stars” making a great screen debut as a popular classmate of Carrie’s who jokingly asks her to prom.)

Though the acting is good, it’s not enough to overpower the lackluster filmmaking.  Pierce relies far too heavily on CGI effects to provide the horror, and they feel particularly uninspired with their low intensity.  Without the unconventional, unpredictable filmmaking impulses of De Palma coursing through the veins of this “Carrie,” the film lacks greatly intensity and excitement.  C+2stars





REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars

5 06 2014

Quite often nowadays, I carry a small notepad with me when I go to see movies.  Unfortunately, I often find myself writing my review mentally as I watch the film, and I hate letting the perfect phrase slip out of my mind to never be recovered again.  I usually jot down enough phrases to fill a small page and can usually tease out the basic structure of my review.

With “The Fault in Our Stars,” however, I found that I had only written one small observation.  It was not some particularly insightful comment but merely a note of a particularly well-employed song by M83  (click to listen, but I won’t spoil the name for those yet to see the film) with the word “YES” written in all caps next to it.  I could say the same word, more or less, for the whole movie.

Those who found themselves moved by John Green’s poignant novel about a romance between two teenagers that want to be identified by something other than their cancer diagnoses will be pleased by this adaptation.  The script, nimbly adapted by the writers behind “(500) Days of Summer,” keeps the feel of the story and characters carefully in tact while also streamlining them to better suit the medium of film.  In some ways, the movie is actually an improved narrative as it excises any moment that doesn’t directly advance the relationship between the two main characters.

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