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: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

5 08 2014

When Marc Webb was announced as the next director to helm the “Spider-Man” series, more than a few eyebrows were raised (including my own).  With only “(500) Days of Summer” under his belt, Webb seemed like an odd figure to entrust with a multi-million dollar franchise.  While that film showed a true creative mind at work, its exuberant eclecticism was not an obvious fit for a series that had been rather somber under the guidance of Sam Raimi.

None of these qualifications showed at all in his first outing with the arachnid hero, 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which slavishly recreated the hero’s mythology for the generation that didn’t see the 2002 version in theaters or in its million syndicated cable showings.  The reboot felt timidly directed by Webb, whose trepidation at approaching a new genre of filmmaking was clear.

In his second go-round, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” glimpses of his distinctive stamp on the series become a little more clear.  One scene in particular where Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker angrily puts in his earbuds and makes a map to decipher the mysterious past of his parents seems to directly parallel the sequence in “(500) Days of Summer” where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom draws a cityscape of Los Angeles.  And in one of the film’s final scenes, Webb leaves us with a hauntingly emotional denouement using no words, just powerful images and montage.

Sadly, these small pockets of artistry in the film were few and far between.  Though the film as a whole feels more confident than its predecessor, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” still suffers from the general lack of inspiration plaguing big-budget filmmaking, and especially comic book adaptations.

The screenplay is crafted this time by the Kurtzman-Orci duo that has given us some of the more ingenious popcorn flicks of the past few years (“Star Trek“) as well as some of its biggest duds (“Transformers“).  This film falls somewhere in between; it’s good enough to keep interest throughout, but we can see every plot development coming from a mile away.

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REVIEW: Django Unchained

25 12 2012

Quentin Tarantino’s name is now a brand, one with hallmarks of dialogue and style widely recognized by all cinephiles.  It’s an accomplishment achieved not only by Tarantino’s incredible virtuosity but also by the scores of cheap rip-offs who have solidified his status as a major figure in film history.  Yet with “Django Unchained,” Tarantino proves that the greatest of all these impersonators is Tarantino himself.

The experience is not unlike that of watching “Jackie Brown,” the only other film of the Tarantino canon that “Django Unchained” manages to stand next to in quality.  Both films followed major artistic breakthroughs for him that scored with audiences and critics alike, “Pulp Fiction” and “Inglourious Basterds.”

But rather than use the forward momentum to lead to further exploration of his craft, Tarantino chose to take a victory lap fueled by the high of inhaling too much of the exhaust fumes of his own success.  “Django Unchained” just feels like Tarantino on autopilot, lacking the vibrancy or surprising eccentricity of his prior films.  There are plenty of laughs to be had, sure, but it just feels like far too much of the same stylized dialogue and aestheticized violence; popping in the DVD of “Reservoir Dogs” would probably yield more satisfaction.

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REVIEW: Horrible Bosses

6 07 2011

We are now inhabiting the post-“Hangover” world, and in case you needed any proof that studios are looking to locate the success gene in the hit comedy’s DNA, I submit “Horrible Bosses” as evidence.  It really shouldn’t surprise you; it’s a page straight from the television networks’ playbook.  As soon as Fox premiered “American Idol,” every network wanted a singing competition.  After ABC had a big hit with “Dancing with the Stars,” every network suddenly had a dancing show.  We live in a culture of thinly veiled rip-offs that barely bother to disguise their ever-so-slight variations from the original success story.

The good news for Seth Gordon and the “Horrible Bosses” team is that, at least at this moment, I still find the formula amusing and funny.  The next movie shamelessly pressed from the “Hangover” mold, however, will probably not be in my good graces, so at least they got the timing right on this one.  But the fact that some movie other than the sequel has tried using a similar blueprint for high cash and laugh returns signals a foreboding era in comedy.  (Then again, I said the same thing last summer about “Iron Man 2” being the first of many “The Dark Knight” rip-offs, and nothing seems to have materialized there.)

The film invites these comparisons by using what may be the most recognizable aspect of “The Hangover” for laughs – the Wolfpack.  From now on, any comedy that has a ragtag alliance of three thirtysomething guys will inevitably have to be measured against the ridiculously high standard set by Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis.  Unfair?  Probably.  Justified?  Definitely.

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REVIEW: Due Date

29 11 2010

The straight man-fat man road trip routine has been done before (see “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”), but just because John Hughes milked that cow first doesn’t mean he milked it dry.  There’s still plenty of humor left in the sub-genre, and “Due Date” manages to find quite a bit of it.  With Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis in great comic form, director Todd Phillips of “The Hangover” fame makes a movie that really delivers in the laugh department.

All plausibility is thrown out the window as Peter (Downey) makes an all-too-difficult return voyage home to Los Angeles for the birth of his child.  Each step of the way is only made more challenging by aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis), a magnet for disaster with no filter blocking thoughts from words.  As they traverse across America with a coffee can of his father’s ashes and his carry-on sized pooch Sonny, Ethan’s ineptitude makes sure Peter won’t arrive prematurely for the due date of his wife (Michelle Monaghan).

The situations are fairly well-crafted, ranging from a grumpy Western Union employee played by the always hilarious Danny McBride to Jamie Foxx as a smooth-talking Texan football player.  There are also plenty of conflicts with national security from the TSA to Border Patrol to keep things interesting too.

But what saves “Due Date” from being average and raises it to the level of decent entertainment is the talent of its stars Downey and Galifianakis.  They inject the movie with their hilariously polar opposite personalities, and their sheer presence is enough to garner multiple outrageous bursts of laughter.  Galifianakis particularly lights up the screen with his dynamite energy, and he shows that his ability to spin little lines into comedic gold is not limited to the character Alan in “The Hangover.”  With him in full gear, there’s no shortage of laughs here.  Cheap, sure, but nonetheless, laughs.  B





REVIEW: Law Abiding Citizen

5 04 2010

The gold standard for the cat-and-mouse thriller is “The Silence of the Lambs,” which won Best Picture back in 1991.  To be honest, it really isn’t fair to judge similar movies against it just because of how amazing that movie is.  But nevertheless, I still have to do it.

Law Abiding Citizen” actually has a little bit in common with “The Silence of the Lambs.”  Outside of the cages, we have our Clarice Starling counterpart Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), committed to justice so long as it doesn’t ruin his high conviction rate as a lawyer,  Inside, we have our Hannibal Lecter counterpart Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), committed to justice in the form of revenge and payback against those who ruined his life.

Does “Law Abiding Citzen” measure up?  No, but there has yet to be a movie that has, so that shouldn’t be taken too harshly.

Overall, it’s a pretty good movie and it delivers some quality entertainment for an hour and 45 minutes.  I don’t know if I could go as far as to use a sensational adjective like spellbinding or gripping to describe it, but I managed to stay very engaged and curious about what would happen next.  This might not have been great to see in theaters, but it makes for a satisfying rental.  I’ll gladly stop and watch this on Starz when it comes on in a few months.

The main thing that didn’t thrill me about “Law Abiding Citizen” was that I felt very little friction between Foxx and Butler.  “The Silence of the Lambs” exploded off the screen because Foster and Hopkins played off each other so well.  I don’t take issue with Foxx’s contribution so much as Butler, who played his psychopathic killer quite similarly to the way he played the crude womanizer in “The Ugly Truth.”  He is a long way from delivering a performance so eerie that it could earn an Academy Award (like Hopkins), but in spite of his flaws, the movie doesn’t suffer too badly.  B /





What to Look Forward to In … October 2009

29 08 2009

We give the movie industry late August and all of September to recover from the busy summer season, but in October, it starts to kick it into gear again.  Unfortunately, my most anticipated movie in October, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” was pushed back to February.  But the month still puts forth several great movies for all tastes.

October 2

This week, I can promise you that I will be throwing my money not at a new release, but at the re-release of two staples of my childhood.  “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” will hit theaters again for a few weeks.  1 ticket.  2 movies. 3-D.  Need I say more?

The week also gives us “The Invention of Lying,” which could be a sleeper comedy hit. The movie stars Ricky Gervais, who was the lead of the British version of “The Office.” Around this time last year, he starred in “Ghost Town,” a comedy with a heart that you need to go rent now, that was dismissed by audiences. I have high hopes for his latest, in which he plays a man who tells the world’s first lie on an alternate Earth. He continues to wield the power to suit his own selfish needs. The movie also features Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, and the always funny Tina Fey.

And not to mention, the week delivers Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, “Whip It.” The movie stars the irresistible Ellen Page (“Juno”) as Bliss, a teenager weary of the beauty pageants that she is forced into by her parents. One day, she discovers the world of roller derby and she finds the happiness that she has been so desperately seeking. The movie boasts a hilarious supporting cast including Kristen Wiig (“SNL”), Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, and Barrymore herself.

And it just keeps getting better.  The Coen Brothers (“No Country for Old Men”) are back with their latest feature, “A Serious Man;” they also wrote the original screenplay.  The movie seems to be a big risk.  It features no marquee names other than the Coens themselves. The trailer is cryptic, giving no indication of what to expect from the movie. I don’t mind an aura of mystique, but this is an aura of confusion. The movie is being marketed as a dark comedy, and I pray that it is the polar opposite of the Coens’ last foray into the genre, “Burn After Reading,” which I didn’t find funny at all. The movie starts in limited release and then will slowly expand from New York and Los Angeles.

The other major release of the week is “Zombieland,” a horror-comedy with Woody Harrelson.

October 9

The only exciting movie hitting theaters across the country this weekend is “Couples Retreat.”  A comedy centered around four couples at a luxurious tropical resort that is revealed to be a marriage therapy clinic, it appears to provide something for everyone.  It has pretty women (Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis) AND funny guys (Jason Bateman, Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau).  The movie is the directorial debut of Ralph Billingsley, best known for playing Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” and the screenplay is written by Vaughn and Favreau.  Hopefully it can provide some good laughs in a season usually replete of hilarious comedies.

Opening in limited release is “An Education,” a movie that has been garnering massive Oscar buzz for months now.  Most of it has centered on the breakout performance of lead actress Carey Mulligan.  In the movie, she stars as Jenny, a 17-year-old in 1960s England who is set on going to Oxford.  However, an older gentleman (Peter Sarsgaard) comes along and sweeps her off of her feet, introducing her to a lifestyle that she immediately loves.  But reality bites, and Jenny is left at a crucial crossroads.  The movie has also generated buzz around supporting actors Alfred Molina and Rosamund Pike (the red-haired villain of “Die Another Day”).  Raves are also flying in for the screenplay, written by author Nick Hornby, writer of “About a Boy” and “Fever Pitch.”  And with the 10 nominees for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, many people say it has a good chance of claiming one of the ten.

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