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: Elvis & Nixon

18 04 2016

Elvis and NixonDirector Liza Johnson has a tendency not to go for the easy laughs, perhaps even to the detriment of the films. In 2014’s “Hateship Loveship,” she almost never allowed Kristen Wiig’s pathetic protagonist to become the butt of the joke, even as she gets mercilessly pranked by a child half her age. Similarly, in “Elvis & Nixon,” the first name mentioned in this meeting of the minds seems ripe for humor at the expense of his larger-than-life persona.

Yet the comedy never really comes out of what feels like an easy farce. Johnson opts for a tone more dramatically oriented where the laughs feel incidental, not the very foundation of the film itself. She deserves a certain amount of respect for taking a more difficult path, but the question of “why?” does loom rather large. “Elvis & Nixon” is a glorified made-for-TV movie (perhaps not coincidentally, Amazon Studios is handling the film and giving it a relatively half-hearted theatrical release) which goes for entertainment value over thematic articulation each chance it gets. Her will for the film seems to clash with its essence.

Johnson seems to genuinely care for the characters, particularly Elvis Presley, played by Michael Shannon in the same way Michael Fassbender portrayed Steve Jobs: conceptual over essential. Sideburns and sunglasses might be his get-up, though Elvis is a walking meditation on celebrity more than anything else. For reasons that seem partially out of genuine concern and partially out of a “Make America Great Again”-style quest for greater societal repute, Elvis decides he wants to become a Federal Deputy At-Large to crack down on the drugs messing with kids’ minds. To do so, he feels the need to engage President Richard Nixon, performed by Kevin Spacey as a variation of Frank Underwood that spent significantly less time on the row machine.

The film is essentially just the lead-up to their meeting and then the meeting itself, nothing more or less. It’s simple and to the point, which proves both a strength and a weakness. Strong when considering how streamlined the whole operation is (“Elvis & Nixon” runs a slender 86 minutes) yet weak when contemplating all the threads of minor storylines that never get the development they deserve.

This is mainly disappointing for Alex Pettyfer, an actor in the midst of mounting a comeback after on-set drama with “Magic Mike” got him blackballed in the industry. As Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ right hand man, he must learn the consequences of his loyalty as they place a great strain on personal relationships. Too bad the film grants him such second fiddle status that his struggles feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of the narrative. B-2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 26, 2015)

26 02 2015

As it turns out, Kevin Spacey has been training to play the role of his life, Frank Underwood, for decades now.  Back in 1995, he starred in “Swimming with Sharks,” a biting satirization of Hollywood’s corporate culture.  But, rest assured, there are no résumé requirements necessary to enjoy the film since it so perfectly captures the experience of working for a hellacious boss.  Writer/director George Huang manages the balance of the specific and the generalizable so well that his debut feature earns my nod for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

This film saw release long before Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly cast an icy spell over the hot summer moviegoing scene in “The Devil Wears Prada,” and it even predates Spacey’s later turn as a sadistic slavedriver executive in “Horrible Bosses.”  Yet even in spite of the proliferation of the archetype, “Swimming with Sharks” still entertains and enlightens with its valid criticisms of the Hollywood system.

The subject of the film is not Spacey’s bag of hot air masquerading around in a fancy suit, Buddy Ackerman, though.  The events of “Swimming with Sharks” are seen and felt through his latest poor assistant, aptly named Guy (Frank Whaley), who has to endure constant harassment and humiliation until he amasses enough experience to move up in the business.  Buddy boasts all the pedantry and pettiness of Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold from “Entourage,” although he appears relatively lacking in creativity and productivity to earn the rights to be such a jerk.

What inevitably follows comes with a strange mixture of pity, rage, schadenfreude, and even a little bit of surprising empathy.  Even within the confines of a fairly familiar story, Huang makes his everyman worth rooting for by stacking the odds heavily against him – as well as pitting him against a particularly devilish superior.  Spacey knows how to be scarily threatening with his words, and he also knows how to be scarily vulnerable with his emotions when the time comes.





REVIEW: Margin Call

17 03 2012

If anyone ever wanted to know about the problems facing rich white people, tell them to pop “Margin Call” into their DVD player.  When it’s not faintly allegorizing what “Inside Job” had the balls to hit dead on, it’s dealing with the pathetic plight of financial sector employees like 23-year-old Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) who is only bringing home $250,000 per year at an entry level position.  Clearly he can related to little orphan Annie when she sang that it’s a hard knock life for us.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor, in his first feature, narrates the film much like a play, letting the principal characters guide the story.  Aside from maybe one line from a security guard, you won’t hear the voice of the people who will be most affected by the actions in this movie.  There’s one scene in an elevator where Demi Moore’s Sarah Robertson and Simon Baker’s Jared Cohen gravely discuss the implications of their conduct, and in between them is a cleaning lady.  In one of the few great touches of the film and with an almost macabre sense of dark humor, Chandor makes sure that she is totally oblivious to the grave implications of what’s happening in the building she cleans.

“Margin Call” was the beneficiary of chance when the Occupy movement began right around its October 2011 release date, and there are several lines which I feel could have been ripped straight off their cardboard signs.  His portrayal of the investment bankers are shallow, simply becoming more evil and out-of-touch with the more money they make.  The sweeping generalizations of the film are about as ill-conceived as his “magic formula” that predicts the coming of the 2008 financial crisis; I’m wondering if even he knew what on earth it was.  There’s no attempt to explain what a CDO is, or even what on earth these traders do.  There’s great complexity to the system beyond his adaptation of “Baby’s First Guide to Capitalism,” believe it or not.

There are some decent acting moments that make “Margin Call” a watchable movie, and the script has just above the requisite amount of intrigue to keep your attention.  But with all these “one percenter”s just talking about how to spend their millions in convertibles, you wouldn’t think that the world economy was about to collapse.  I know that exists, but if you want to demonize rich people, why not just make a movie only about CEOs of investment banks in September 2008.  C





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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FINCHERFEST: Se7en

25 09 2010

A real review of David Fincher’s work should begin with “Se7en,” the first movie he takes full credit for.  It was a financial success in 1995 and has since become an adored movie by fans on video.  The movie currently sits at #26 on IMDb’s Top 250 movies as voted by users, and in today’s installment of Fincherfest, I will attempt to explain what has made it so endearing over the past 15 years.

I’m a big fan of “Seven,” but I hate to say that I don’t think it’s quite as good as some people think it is.  According to Lisa Schwarzbaum, overrated is a big critical no-no word; however, since this is more a look in retrospect than a review, I don’t feel quite as bad using it.

Fincher does an excellent job directing a very cerebral world of horror, and as his first real directorial effort, it’s quite impressive.  Yet overall, I wasn’t quite as affected by it as I felt I should have been.  When it comes to serial killer movies, I much prefer “The Silence of the Lambs” and “No Country for Old Men.”

Yet I acknowledge that “Seven” has a very different kind of horror.  We aren’t meant to be freaked out by the murderer John Doe (Kevin Spacey).  We never see him committing any crimes, nor does he ever give us any indication that he might flip and kill another person.  He’s just like anyone you could round up off the streets, and that makes him all the more frightening.  John Doe is like Heath Ledger’s The Joker without a makeup and without any sense of humor.  The tacit implication is that all of us have the capability to be John Doe, something quite scary to suggest and not the kind of message you want to walk away from a movie having learned.  We never see the results of the killings, inspiring the audience to imagine the murder for themselves.  Anyone who can do so has the inherent ability to be Doe.

Such a killer is the last person Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman, pre-God) wants to deal with in his waning hours on the job.  He and his replacement, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), are drawn into the world of John Doe, who commits murders related to the Seven Deadly Sins.  Catching him requires intellect, and they delve into the classic work of Dante, Thomas Aquinas, and others to figure out his modus operandi.  The dialectic struggle between Somerset about to apathetically walk off the job and Mills eagerly awaiting his future is a fascinating backdrop to the rest of the brutal themes of the movie.

Apparently back in the ’90s, New Line Cinema advertised “Se7en” as a movie that you shouldn’t watch in the dark because that atmosphere would scare anyone to death.  I did just that, and I found the darkness to be nothing more than a fitting complement to the universe Fincher crafts.  It’s always muggy and rainy in the unidentified city where the murders take place, and the world view the movie espouses is bleaker than the weather.  According to Somerset, the world is worth fighting for, but it’s hardly a fine place.

The more you think about it, the more you realize Fincher’s challenge to our assumptions of what is good and what is evil.  The villain is defined … or is it?  Such an idea is a little unsettling to audiences, but that hasn’t kept it from being very well received.  Perhaps its forte isn’t in being a serial killer movie; the strength is in the social critique of the godlessness of society.





REVIEW: The Men Who Stare At Goats

22 11 2009

Much of “The Men Who Stare At Goats” follows dumb-struck reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan MacGregor) and straight-faced former psychic spy Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney) meandering through the Iraqi desert.  Sadly, the movie follows suit, heading in several different directions at once, none of which with confidence.  It is satirical but never makes the target inherently clear.  It is farcical yet it continues to persist that what we are watching really happened.  Thankfully, the movie manages to give the audience some good belly laughs while they scratch their heads trying to figure out the direction it is heading.

The main plot arc follows Wilton and Cassidy as they traverse through Iraq on a mission to find the remnants of the New Earth Army, a battalion using New Age tactics to gain such powers as invisibility, remote viewing, and walking through walls.  Strangely, it is Wilton who tells us the history of the group informally known as the “Jedi Warriors.”  It is curious that the filmmakers chose him to narrate the story through fragments in the principal narrative, seeing as Wilton would have no idea of what happened.  These segments are the best and most uproarious parts of the movie, but they are thrown into the story so haphazardly that it becomes difficult to remember what is happening to Wilton and Cassidy.  Both were story lines crucial to a full movie, but with a little discretion and some more mapping, a more cogent and enjoyable experience could have been easily possible.

“The Men Who Stare At Goats” really shines in its moments of pure absurdity, which could be exactly what the filmmakers didn’t want since they want us to believe that much of what is portrayed actually occurred.  They aim for bizarrely plausible, but they wind up with laughably ridiculous.  It is certainly enjoyable to see George Clooney in a role where he isn’t quite so staid and upright, and one can get a hearty chuckle out of seeing him with longer locks and putting on his boogie shoes.  Ewan MacGregor, possibly cast just for added irony on all the Jedi jokes, performs almost a straight man-straight man routine with Clooney, yet somehow the combination yields a great deal of laughs.  Jeff Bridges channels a bit of “The Dude” and Kevin Spacey brings an antagonistic smugness to his role, but neither seem entirely committed.  In the end, “The Men Who Stare At Goats” provides you some of what you want but definitely not in the way that you want it.  B /