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Baby Driver

Posted July 2, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

I am really going to hate writing this one, folks. Not because the film was mediocre, you understand. Not because the film was a disappointment. And not because the movie was hollow or void of any artistic merit.

And I’m not going to hate writing about this movie because it’s good. I’m going to hate writing a review for this movie because it’s a very special kind of good.

Baby Driver is a such an extraordinary work by such a singular genius that nobody aside from Edgar Wright himself could describe it in any way that does justice. This is something so unique, so unlike anything else out there, that no adequate comparison can be made. It’s loaded with jokes and stunts and plot twists that I desperately want to avoid talking about for fear of spoiling anything. This film provides such an extraordinary visceral thrill that there’s no reasonable substitute for being part of it.

And if it sounds like I’m overselling this thing, there’s another reason why I’m going to hate writing this review. My gentle readers, I don’t know what I have to say to convince you to get your asses into that theater immediately — with the promise that you, the movie industry, and the world as a whole would be better off if this movie made a gazillion dollars — but I wish to the depths of my soul that I did. Anyway, let’s go and give it a try, shall we?

The titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) lost his parents in a car crash when he was a kid. In the time since, he’s been living with a foster father (Joe, played by CJ Jones) who’s grown old, mute, and immobile over the years. More importantly, Baby still has a bad case of tinnitus from the car accident, which he constantly treats with music.

Baby has an iPod (and I do mean an actual old-fashioned iPod, not a smartphone) for every mood he could possibly be in. Baby acts eccentric, but that’s primarily because he’s listening to music nobody else can hear. He moves at his own tempo and he doesn’t flinch at anything, but that’s not to say he’s completely ignorant of everything around him. He simply appears to be disconnected from the rest of the world because he’d rather be dancing between raindrops. Baby hears music in everything, even going so far as to record sounds and voices to mix them into his own tracks.

But Baby has another specialty, and therein lies the crux of the plot.

At some point after he was orphaned, Baby took to stealing cars. Long story short (Too late!), Baby stole the wrong car and wound up indebted to a ruthless criminal mastermind (Doc, played by Kevin Spacey). Ever since, Baby has been the wheelman for Doc and his rotating crew of thieves.

Our story begins shortly before Baby is finally settled up with Doc and finds a love interest in a young waitress (Debora, played by Lily James). Things seem to be going fine, until Baby finds out that — surprise, surprise! — getting out of the criminal business isn’t so easy. So now Baby is trying to work this new heist in such a way that he keeps his hands clean, gets the girl, and finds some way to end his life of crime once and for all.

The thing about genre-blending movies is that they’re extremely high-risk/high-reward. It’s exceptionally difficult to mix so many disparate genres into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, rather than a formless mush that doesn’t achieve anything. A movie that fails is an incompetent clusterfuck, while a movie that succeeds is a superbly crafted masterpiece that appeals to audiences across the spectrum and works on multiple levels.

A significant part of what makes Edgar Wright a master filmmaker is his ability to consistently deliver genre-blending films that work beautifully. It’s also a huge part of why the three Blood and Cornetto movies (The World’s End to an admittedly lesser extent) are regarded as modern comedy classics, and why Scott Pilgrim vs. The World became a massive cult hit (and one of my all-time favorites). But this film is like Scott Pilgrim on rocket fuel.

From start to finish, this movie never fails to deliver on every single level. The chase scenes are spectacular. The action is incredible. The comedy is hilarious. The crime thriller storyline is compelling. The romance is very sweet, powered by great chemistry between the two leads. And the music… Sweet mother of mercy, the music.

The soundtrack is an eclectic blend of awesome, with kickass songs across multiple genres. It’s ingenious how the action beats, dialogue, camerawork, editing, and even certain set details were made to line up with cues in the soundtrack and sound effects. The attention to detail here is truly staggering. Moreover, all of it is geared toward putting us in Baby’s headspace, showing us how his impeccable sense of rhythm informs everything he does and how he sees the world. The sound design even goes so far as to crank up the tinnitus to show Baby’s growing discomfort in certain moments.

The music is also a huge thematic point. The clever and comedic use of pop culture references is of course another Edgar Wright trademark, and this effort is absolutely no exception. So much of the dialogue involves bonding over favorite songs and using movie references as a cultural shorthand. In many ways, it’s a celebration of pop culture and how it brings us together. Even better, there’s a strong artistic statement implicit in how Baby hears music in everything, and how he takes meaningful moments and turns them into art.

Of course we get the usual crime thriller fare about violence, redemption, honor among thieves, and so on. Yet even that takes on a novel dimension with the premise. From start to finish, Baby is bullied around by his fellow thieves, mocked and mistrusted because of how different he is. What’s lost on them is that… well, they’re criminals. By definition, they’re all social misfits, they’re all eccentric in some way, and not a one of them can really be trusted. It’s an irony that makes the thieves look all the more stupid, especially since Baby himself is more than capable of proving himself to be the smartest person in the room and he couldn’t give less of a shit about what the others think of him.

The cast is sterling from top to bottom. Ansel Elgort turns in a charming, confident, star-making performance. Lily James is utterly radiant, and it’s incredible how she does so much with what could’ve been a paper-thin love interest. Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal all bring their own unique skill sets to play various types of criminal scum like only they could. Last but not least is Eiza Gonzalez, here making her English-language cinematic debut as the wife to Hamm’s character. Gonzalez positively burns up the screen and I dearly hope we see more of her.

(Side note: Yes, Gonzalez technically had a cameo role in the post-credits stinger of Jem and the Holograms. That does not count. This is her debut.)

But of course that’s just the principal cast. Tucked away in the corners are all sorts of memorable bit parts played by actors who succeed at leaving an impression. We’ve got Sky Ferreira (herself a lesser-known musician), positively angelic as Baby’s mother. CJ Jones does remarkably well playing Baby’s foster father, wringing so much emotion out of what’s basically a plot device who can’t even talk! Brogan Hall plays Doc’s nephew and totally steals his one scene. Flea plays a thief for one of the heists, and he’s freaking hysterical. That’s not even getting started on all the various cameos from Paul Williams, Big Boi, Killer Mike, Walter Hill, and who knows who else.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, a big one for me is Jon Bernthal, who shows up for the opening heist and more or less disappears from the picture after that. I’ve got a hunch that most of his character’s screen time wound up on the cutting room floor, especially given how much dialogue and footage from the trailers never made the final cut. It’s a damn shame — Bernthal’s character is so deep into his wheelhouse that I’d have loved to see more of him having fun with it.

(Side note: My personal favorite line from the promos, describing Baby as “Mozart with a Go-Kart”, didn’t make the cut and only appears as a sight gag. Oh, well.)

But easily the most prominent nitpicks come with the third act. While the last third is a free-wheeling blast and the thrills keep coming right up until the denouement, getting the plot where it needed to go in a great goddamn hurry required a few pretty flimsy contrivances. Certainly the most notable is a face-turn that doesn’t really happen for any decent reason except to tie up a plot thread. But the good news is that, again, things keep moving at such a fast pace that there’s really no time to dwell on the slip-ups before the next chase scene.

Even with this whole blog entry typed up, I still don’t think I have the words to adequately describe how much I loved sitting through Baby Driver. It’s stylish, it’s original, it’s exciting, it’s romantic, it’s tightly constructed, it’s superbly acted, it’s just flat fucking awesome. The action is jaw-dropping, the comedy is effective, and the use of music is indescribably fantastic. I seriously can’t wait to see it another two or three times just to pick up on what I missed.

I remember when Scott Pilgrim vs. The World tanked at the box office, and that was an absolute travesty. I’m begging you, folks: Please, please, please don’t let that happen to this one. The movie deserves better, Edgar Wright deserves better, everyone involved with this picture deserves better, and to be entirely honest, you deserve better.


The Beguiled

Posted July 2, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

I still can’t believe it’s taken me this long to see a Sofia Coppola film. I’ve heard wonderful things and select films of hers have been on my list for some time, I just never got around to them. Luckily, it seems like this might have been a decent one to start with.

The Beguiled takes place while the Civil War is in full swing. Even better, it’s set in Virginia — technically on the Confederate side of the faction line, but only just. Our stage is primarily set in a women’s seminary, housing four young students (played by Elle Fanning, Oona Chaplin, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard), a teacher (Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst), and the headmistress (Martha, played by Nicole Kidman).

Things are tense enough — since the slaves all ran away and Union soldiers have come in raiding on a regular basis — and then along comes the wounded Corporal John McBurney, played by Colin Farrell. He’s a Union soldier in Confederate territory, an Irish immigrant on American soil, a red-blooded man surrounded by chaste women (most of whom are little more than children), and a stranger in a house full of tenants who know each other intimately. Yet these women agree to keep him around (albeit grudgingly), at least until his leg heals.

I’m sorry to say that this is one of those unfortunate plots that only works if every single person involved is an idiot. There’s really no logical reason why these ladies keep John around or indulge an attraction to him, and the movie finds all sorts of flimsy contrivances to make the conceit work. That said, there is a kind of emotional logic here that gets at deeper themes.

This is a story about divisions between us. Specifically, it’s about how the differences that lead us to hate and fear each other can also be a cause of fascination and inspiration. Admittedly not a new concept, except that the stranger in this case is Colin Farrell.

A man with Farrell’s stage presence could be friendly just as easily as hostile, an earnest lover just as easily as a womanizing predator. And the film never lets us forget it. For all of John’s charm and good manners, we can never ever forget that he’s a stranger with a history and an agenda that are completely unknown.

What’s potentially even more interesting is the notion that John is the prisoner here. Even if he’s a soldier and they’re all a bunch of unarmed women, he’s still wounded and outnumbered in a house he knows nothing about. And again, he’s a Union soldier in Confederate land, surrounded by women who’ve all lost something in this war. So really, he’s got every reason to be just as afraid of them as they are of him.

All of that said, I want to stress that this one is a VERY slow burn. There are so many scenes and shots in which nothing seems to happen, and it’s just the characters going about their lives. This is a 90-minute film, and it feels like two hours until the plot really gets going. But surprisingly, that’s actually a point in the movie’s favor.

The filmmakers are diabolically subtle in their depiction of how things are changing in John’s presence. A status quo is carefully established, and the film is highly methodical in showing precisely how the characters start to act differently, with a routine that gets disrupted in gradually more noticeable ways. To be clear, these changes are mostly welcome ones, as John gives back to his reluctant nurses and they all take varying degrees of fancy to this stranger from a faraway land.

Even so, the film is never void of tension. Remember, the whole premise rests on the notion of someone being where he doesn’t belong, and in a time of war. Even in those times when nothing happens, there’s still an underlying tension because we know that something has to happen at some point. Moreover, even as John integrates himself into life at the seminary and there’s a growing trust between him and the residents, the truce never gets any less fragile. There’s a very delicate balance of trust here, and it only takes one minor slip-up to ruin everything.

This naturally means that the more time passes and the more everyone comes to think of John as a friend (or more than a friend, as the case may be), the harder it’s going to hurt when everything inevitably comes crashing down. And when mistakes result in such disastrous messes, drastic measures will be needed to clean them up.

A lot of what makes this film so effective is of course in Coppola’s direction. The shots are haunting in their composition and their editing, not to mention the borderline nonexistent score. It all augments the terrible certainty that something awful is going to happen, we just don’t know when.

Then of course there’s the cast. I hope I’ve made it clear that Farrell was perfectly cast and the strength of his performance is a vital part of what powers the film. He also has extraordinary scene partners in Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman, both of whom beautifully play to their strengths here. Kidman plays the matron who’s always keeping her cards close to the chest, and Dunst plays a beauty burdened with ennui. There’s nobody else who could play these roles like they could, and they both add so much.

As for the students, Elle Fanning also plays to her established strengths as a mercurial young seductress. Kudos are also due to Oona Laurence (previously the only memorable part of Southpaw) and Angourie Rice (who damn near stole the show in The Nice Guys), both of whom continue to prove themselves as remarkable young talents more than capable of holding the screen. It’s seriously impressive how much they were able to do with so little.

That said — and maybe this is just me — but I was frustrated by how uneven the southern accents were. Pretty much the only accent in this film that works 100 percent of the time is Colin Farrell’s, mostly because it’s the Irish brogue he was born with. I’m honestly not sure why the filmmakers decided to make his character an immigrant, but I suppose it’s plausible enough. And anyway, the difference in speech serves to further highlight the social divide between him and the other characters.

To sum up, The Beguiled is an intriguing little film, but it takes a bit of patience to sit through. The “idiot plot” demands a certain level of suspending disbelief, and the deliberate pace takes some getting used to. That said, it’s still an elegant and beautifully crafted film about compassion and paranoia between strangers, and the cast is stellar from top to bottom.

Definitely worth checking out.