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-

REVIEW: The World’s End

23 06 2017

Edgar Wright might be known for his visual comedy and genre pastiche, but he’s also not afraid to throw in a little social commentary with his trademarks. Like many contemporary directors, he’s concerned with the effect of cell phones and technology on society. Part of the joke in Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” was how little separated the undead zombies from the barely living humans on a treadmill of electronic stimulation.

His 2013 feature “The World’s End” takes that comparison to newly absurd heights. In this reunion comedy-cum-apocalyptic action flick, cell phones are the tool that’s turning residents of a sleepy British town into robotic versions of themselves. (Hit them hard enough in the head, and they’ll spew blue liquid!)

Wright’s clever twist on the genre is to focus on replacement over annihilation. As an exposition-heavy section of dialogue tells us, “They want to make us more like them.” Social change happens not as an invasion or hostile takeover, although the horror films that speak to our anxieties about it usually portray it as such. Rather, the decline of civility takes place as a gradual erosion until our humanity is barely recognizable.

Wright (and co-writer Simon Pegg) are smart to set this observation against the backdrop of the pub tour of five estranged friends brought back together by Pegg’s lonely alcoholic. As he yearns for the mythical past of his glory days, he finds the present-day changes to the people of the town make his nostalgia impossible. Yet the social commentary, which is not anything particularly monumental, comes at the expense of Wright’s usual cheeky fun. It’s nice to get a reminder that friends and happiness are two things worth fighting for – these characters just aren’t always the best merchants for that moral. B

F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 22, 2017)

22 06 2017

I’d been a little iffy on Edgar Wright as a brand-name director for years … that is, until I saw his latest film, “Baby Driver,” which was so good that it inspired me to go back and revisit his entire filmography. I’d given “Shaun of the Dead” and “The World’s End” second chances before but never returned to “Hot Fuzz,” his 2007 crime caper. Wow, was I missing out.

A second watch revealed “Hot Fuzz” to be an obvious “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” It’s smart, stylish and subversive – all the things that mark Wright’s best cinema. He can successfully play with genre like few other working directors, and this re-teaming of Wright with comedic muses Simon Pegg and Nick Frost exhibits his most seamless blend.

The adventure starts as a fish-out-of-water comedy when the impressively efficient London Metro Police officer Nicholas Angel (Pegg) gets transferred to the sleepy country town Sandford. He’s used to his presence being necessary to enforce the law in the big city. Here, Angel finds that the police have made themselves largely ornamental. There’s a strong amount of social trust in the community, and the existing police officers take a hands-off approach to handling any misbehaviors and misdemeanors they observe. Not Angel, though, who takes thwarting underage pub drinking as seriously as foiling a terrorist plot.

But lurking under the blissful bucolic facade is a cabal that threatens the townspeople by exploiting their trust and naïveté. They’re certainly lucky to have Angel around for this, although he’s hamstrung by the provincial local police chief (Jim Broadbent) and his aloof son Danny Butterman (Frost) … who just so happens to be Angel’s partner. Danny’s chief preparation for the job, aside from his lineage, is watching lots of ’90s action movies. As it turns out, that proves most helpful for combating the menace facing Sandford.

Wright pulls off the tricky task of paying homage to a series of influential films (“Bad Boys,” “Point Break”) while humorously sending them up and one-upping their antics. His comedy goes far beyond the lazy “Scary Movie” spoof; Wright works in how people interact with film and how it tints their view of the world to hilarious ends. Furthermore, he’s not just cribbing an incident or a feel from the genre and calling it a take on them. He’s mimicking their aesthetic with loud, smashing cuts and big pyrotechnics. Just appropriately adjusted for the real world.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 3, 2015)

3 12 2015

SightseersI must admit, I was skeptical of delving into some of the deeper cuts in director Ben Wheatley’s filmography after nodding off on two separate occasions during his cult favorite work “Kill List.” (It’s more me than the movie – I was tired both times and got further exhausted by working to understand the thick accents.) But after seeing his 2013 film “Sightseers,” I must say, I feel far more confident that I will like what I see going further back.

Funny enough, I actually saw Wheatley in person while he was promoting the film’s world premiere in Cannes back in 2012. Someone asked a question along the lines of, “What do you do while the movie plays?” Wheatley caustically responded that you could find him in a bar drinking away his nerves. Though why he would doubt that “Sightseers” could play like anything other than gangbuster escapes me. This bonkers road trip comedy is a creative, exciting blast from start to finish; as such, it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Alice Lowe and Steve Oram star as Carol and Chris, two lovebirds who embark on a road trip across Britain – hauling a caravan behind them, of course. Carol goes against the instructions of her well-meaning mother, who still infantilizes her at the age of 34. She’s reeling from the loss of someone special, too, and remains somewhat unstable. Though she has only dated Chris a few months, Carol seems to think he is that special someone.

That is until, of course, she realizes that he is capable of committing some intensely violent deeds while feeling very little remorse. But that does not seem to bother her. She’s along for the ride, no matter what strange turn or bizarre twist their journey takes next.

There are moments along the way when it feels like “Sightseers” will start to fall in line with some other similar movie. Yet the longer it goes on, the less it resembles something like “Bonnie and Clyde” or “Thelma and Louise.” Wheatley, working with a script by his two lead actors, manages to make a film that is wholeheartedly unique. It vibrates at such an odd comedic wavelength, mostly black but also silly and solemn in places.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, Wheatley makes sure that murder never becomes something commonplace. He presents each killing in a completely different manner, shocking us all the new and making us really think about what we are digesting. This is quite a sight to see, indeed, and I look forward to being entertained and challenged all the more by what Wheatley has to offer after “High-Rise.”


23 08 2015

Ant-ManAnt-Man,” the final piece in Marvel’s so-called “Phase Two” of their Cinematic Universe, invites us all to do what I have done for the past five years: not to take any of this too seriously.  With the constantly winking and self-effacing charm of Paul Rudd (and co-writer Adam McKay), the best Marvel movie in years is ironically the one that spits in the face of what the studio signifies.

This is the first film from the comic book behemoth since the original “Iron Man” back in 2008 that feels entirely sufficient as a film in its own right, not just a placeholder for the next super-sized sequel.  Granted, some of that might be a response to its iffy economic viability at the green-lighting stage of the process (and some concerns over authorship following the departure of writer/director Edgar Wright and his screenwriting partner Joe Cornish). Nonetheless, “Ant-Man” earns a second installment by virtue of its tongue-in-cheek spirit and fun sense of scale.

Rather than set up some cataclysmic battle of the fates where the powers of good do battle with a terrifying evil that beams a big blue light up into the sky, “Ant-Man” builds up to a fight between two men for one important thing.  This climax engages rather than numbs (as “Avengers” final acts tend to do) because it takes place on the human level where the rest of the film registers.  It also helps that the final clash is essentially the only major one in the movie, going against Marvel’s general tendency to throw in a major action set piece every 30 minutes or so to placate the thrill-seekers in the audience.

And every time it seems like “Ant-Man” is turning into a conveyer belt of Marvel tropes, Paul Rudd’s humor kicks in to disrupt the moment and make a joke at the studio’s expense. He plays on admittedly shorter leash than someone like Judd Apatow or David Wain gives him, but his sardonic wit proves a welcome reprieve of Marvel’s faux gravitas that proves suffocating in their more commercial products.

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REVIEW: Attack the Block

25 07 2011

When I had the chance to see “Attack the Block” back in May 2011, it had neither a release date in the United States nor a domestic trailer.  Its strongest advocates were fanboy-type bloggers on sites like /Film, so I went in with fairly high expectations.  Based on the only trailer I could find, which was for its recent release in the United Kingdom, I had the impression that the film was a comedy with some alien butt-kicking added in the mix.

However, when I walked out of the theater (at the end of the movie – it wasn’t THAT bad), none of my preconceived notions held up.  It was more of an alien invasion horror movie that had some incidental humor, mainly from an easy and tired source – marijuana.  If it was intended to be a comedy, it lost a lot of hilarity on the voyage across the pond.  I’ve never been a big fan of British humor, but I’ve always managed to get a few good chuckles out of movies like “Shaun of the Dead” or “Hot Fuzz.”  This, on the other hand, provided very little in the way of laughter.

But speaking of the films of Edgar Wright, “Attack the Block” feels like a very belated rip-off of the now famous director’s conventions and style, particularly “Shaun.”  Wright isn’t my favorite director, but Joe Cornish’s imitation sure made me appreciate the original even more.  His “Attack the Block,” while entertaining and amusing at times, doesn’t come close to replicating the creativity or fun of a Wright film at any point in its short duration.

American audiences in July, however, will see parallels between another film: “Super 8.”  Both feature teenagers fighting strange extraterrestrials that threaten their homes and livelihoods.  The difference, though, is that “Attack the Block” does not have a visionary director like J.J. Abrams at the helm.  Even though Abrams was paying homage to an earlier innovator, a take on Spielberg is inevitably more entertaining than a take on Edgar Wright.  To top it off, the teens of “Attack the Block” were just plain vulgar and unsympathetic (juvenile delinquents tend to be like that).  Not to sound like a prejudiced American, but their practically unintelligible and profane vernacular just didn’t register with me at all either.

So by all means, in case you haven’t had enough retread this summer, spend your time and money on “Attack the Block.”  It’s a redundant movie not only within its own genres, but within the season as well.  B- / 

Random Factoid #444

15 10 2010

Bleh.  I’ve been watching a ton of cult favorites over the past week trying to bulk up my queue for the “F.I.L.M.” series, and I haven’t found ANYTHING.  I’m not dissing any of these movies or saying that they are bad, but they just didn’t meet the high expectations that I had for them.

Let me give you a run-through of what I watched this week with some quick thoughts, because I don’t think they are quite deserving of “F.I.L.M.” status but they don’t deserve “Save Yourself!” status either.

I started with the films of Edgar Wright because so many bloggers love him.  “Shaun of the Dead” was hilarious, but I didn’t really feel like it was any different or better than “Zombieland.”  The satire I had heard so much about was invisible to me.  “Hot Fuzz” was also pretty funny, but it just kind of devolved into madness at the end.  I get that it was kind of the point since it was a send-up of those beautifully corny ’90s action movies, yet I just lost interest in the end.

Then I went onto “Down to the Bone” because I love Vera Farmiga after “Up in the Air.”  Despite the acclaim she received for the role that put her on the map, I couldn’t help but feel a precarious emotional distance from her save a few powerful moments.  Rehab has been much scarier and much more real than it is here.

Then it was onto the movies of Danny Boyle.  First came “Millions,” which had an interesting premise and a great moral conflict at its core, but all the intrigue in the storyline was finished in the first 20 minutes.  Then was “Trainspotting,” which was visually stunning but lacking in plot.

Isn’t it frustrating when you don’t see something in a movie that everyone else sees?  I think it’s more nerve-wracking that just seeing a bad movie.