Baby Driver Review

Mad Max: The Musical.

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Director: Edgar Wright

Distributor: TriStar Pictures

Rating: R

US Release: June 28, 2017

Edgar Wright has a pension for masterfully manipulating genres that are stale, boring, and simply shouldn’t work into modern classics that prove some of the best movies tackling whatever genre in which they reside. From Hot Fuzz, a buddy cop movie released far after the genre’s prime time for parody yet still proving a hilarious new take on old tropes, to Shaun of the Dead, which not only proved a more exciting and fantastic piece but satirized even more tired genres in zombie and slacker movies, to Scott Pilgrim vs the World, a romantic comedy action video game comic book movie starring Michael Cera that had no right whatsoever to be good but is now one of Wright’s most successful works. Such is the case with Baby Driver, a car chase action movie with a great soundtrack, ostensibly Guardians of the Galaxy but with cars instead of spaceships, starring a disillusioned youth in love trying to turn a new leaf against a big bad he once served. Despite treading this familiar path, Wright’s new movie proves utterly phenomenal, so much so that I fear I will have far too little to say simply from a lack of synonyms for supremely awesome and entirely breathtaking.

Rarely does a movie have me actively hollering, tensing up, laughing out loud, and gritting my teeth, so engaged in its action that I forget where or who I am and am subject to the same experiences as the characters I observe, but from the opening seconds of this piece, the audience is enthralled with the rhythmic precision Wright presents to us. The premise is straightforward and immediately obvious, as we open on a bank heist for which our protagonist, Baby, played with a nuance I never could have expected from Ansel Elgort after his mediocrity in The Fault in our Stars, who is working for criminal mastermind Kevin Spacey, who doesn’t so much act as he does, as he has so many times before, command attention and respect, who plays the character Doc. Baby, however, was in an accident when he was younger which both killed his parents and gave him tinnitus, a ringing he combats by constantly playing music both for himself and the audience. As it sounds, there is something off about Baby, although the film never expressly tells us what it is. Rather, Elgort, in a performance with subtlety that is impossible to be understated, acts both unsettling and frightened, off putting and intimidating yet childlike and traumatized, providing both an emotionally intense character and a blank slate for other performances, almost all of which are showstopping, to project onto throughout the film. From here we are treated to one of the best opening acts in cinematic history. From the way Baby sings along in his car to the way he moves the windshield wipers and, when the robbery has been completed, the car, to get away, Wright has captured a unique precision and rhythm, forcing the audience to both cling to the edge of their seat in exhilaration and tap their foot to the masterfully timed tunes.

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The action is impeccable. From this first getaway scene, Wright shows off his tight and cohesive cuts that make it easy and fun for the audience to follow the action, a trend throughout the film that is increasingly rare in Hollywood action flicks. Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, the film’s editors, did a phenomenal job of keeping our eyes moving in tandem with the beat of the music, just as everything on the screen, from brakes screeching to gunshots, do. In this way, the movie’s soundtrack, which could easily have been a clusterfuck of recognizable tunes hoping to bank on cheap nostalgia (looking at you, Suicide Squad), transforms the film into a pseudo-musical, where everything on screen is enhanced by the beat and the recognizable music, more in line with Breaking Bad or Rick and Morty‘s use of licensed tracks.

Even after the chase scene ends, the rhythmic power continues in every shot by Wright. In a particularly impressive tracking shot, Baby walks down the street singing his song and avoiding police on his way to get coffee for the crew, and not only do his movements match the lyrics perfectly, but the environment changes to match them. From writing on the wall to offhanded lines by extras, everything works to the beat of a massively musical production. Wright even compensates for a lack of movement, as when the crew is debriefing after the heist, the twist of coffee mugs and tapping of fingers all add to the beautifully orchestrated duo of music and performances.

After the debriefing, we are introduced to the central conflict of the film. Baby doesn’t want to be in this life of crime, but, after stealing a car many years ago from Doc, he is forced to repay his debt, and is only one job away from being straight. From here, Baby goes home and introduces us to his immensely charming deaf foster father, who is weary and disapproving of his career, and we are shown how Baby records conversations to remix them into original beats…all of this, keep in mind, synching perfectly with a driving and recognizable soundtrack. We are also introduced to the mysterious diner employee, Debora, a manic pixie dream girl played as well as the old trope can be played by Lilly James, who serves as Baby’s love interest.

During the next heist, Baby runs into some real trouble when we meet Jaime Foxx’s Bats, a criminal so insane and spine chillingly evil that only Foxx could bring such vibrant life and realism to him. After a hilarious misunderstanding resulting in the new crew wearing Mike Meyers (international man of mystery) masks instead of Mike Meyers (the Halloween killer) masks during their heist, we are treated to another getaway scene, this one not going as smoothly and showing Wright’s superb ability to build tension. Baby also shows his soft side, giving the baby in the backseat of a car they steal to the mother from which they steal it and preventing Foxx from murdering their pursuer, prompting Foxx to grow weary of his allegiances.

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After a particularly heinous cleanup job from Foxx’s character, Baby is set free of his position as driver, and returns home to pursue Debora. Here, however, the movie, for its first time, falls flat. Leaving the action of the first act behind and not yet at the climactic third, the second act stumbles over a loss of the incredible rhythm Wright has shown he is capable of. In addition to presenting this small collection of scenes as rather uninteresting and completely usual, this also makes Debora a less endearing character than her initial introduction, as the musical power has died down with the action, adding to a severe character flaw that turns her manic and romantic dreams into questionable shortsightedness and a bizarre devotion to Baby that impedes upon a genuine feeling in the film’s ending. Doc soon returns to remedy this however, as we get our first horrifying glimpse into what the criminals with which Baby associates are capable of and he insists Baby return to steal a collection of money orders from the post office as his big final heist. This gets in the way of the romantic fantasy Debora introduces, of herself and Baby driving off into the sunset in a car they can’t afford with a plan they don’t have…a sentiment that, despite its cheesiness, still gives me romantic chills just repeating.

Casing the joint the next day, the movie features some clunky PSVita product placement and shows us a kindhearted woman working there for whom Baby fears. Soon thereafter, the movie picks up again, and from here on does not stop, as Baby meets the third crew, featuring Bats and two of the first team we were introduced to, Jon Hamm’s Buddy and his wife, Darling, played by Eiza González, a severely underrated actress. Buddy demonstrates affection here for Baby, something few have offered him, which again prompts Bats’s scorn, as he proclaims the second you catch feelings to be the second you catch a bullet.

The team heads to a wear house to acquire arms for the next day, only for Bats to note the crates are marked as police firearms, causing him to initiate a massive firefight that, again, matches perfectly to Baby’s IPod’s backing. Baby, however, is finished with the criminals after seeing the massacre, and as he sulks while driving back, Bats insists they stop in a diner…the same one where Debora works. This begins one of the most tense scenes, as Baby desperately tries to communicate his situation to Debora and, as he leaves, slips her a note declaring that night to be the one on which they make their escape. This scene demonstrates elegantly the power of the remarkable cast, as Foxx makes even the audience fear for their lives, Hamm and González show off their characters’ duality, and Elgort, along with James, demonstrate a strong chemistry through subtle looks and unspoken connection.

When the crew returns to the hideout, the third act really kicks into high gear, as Baby attempts to sneak away to Debora in the night and is caught by Bats and Buddy, Hamm finally getting a chance to show he can compete with Foxx for convincingly horrifying insanity. Horrified of them realizing his relation to Debora and killing her, Baby tries to lie his way out of the situation, but Bats reveals he found Baby’s tape recorder and believes him to be a cop, providing fantastic payoff for the odd quirk set up earlier. When Baby reveals what he really does with the recordings, the crew ransacks his home and steals his tapes, recognizing Debora’s name on one of them and threatening her life if Baby doesn’t go through with the plan the next day.

At the post office, Baby signals to the woman he met the day before, causing the police to be suspicious, and he drives the getaway car into a truck with rebar hanging off of the back, killing Bats as it slams through the windshield. Now, Darling and Buddy are in a shootout with the police as Baby runs away from Darling and Buddy who are also after him.

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What follows is the most exciting chase sequence since Mad Max: Fury Road, wherein most of the characters we have come to know die, plot points are resolved, romances end and blossom, and there are just enough down moments to grant the intense action grand effect, all to the music provided by Baby. The incredible choreography comes back for this final act, which I wouldn’t dare spoil, for the tension, performances, and action are too good to risk even one person missing after finding out what happens. It is important to state, however, that the explosive conclusion and all of the parkour, gunfights, and driving preceding it, all appear to be practical effects, as the limited cgi blends seamlessly with breathtakingly coordinated blocking and tangible lights, sound, and scenery, serving to even further entrench the audience in the fiction of the world. Furthermore, where the second act’s lack of musical coordination was jarring and disorienting, the twists that cut music out of certain parts in the third act serve to make loss and tense scenes amplified in their emotional weight.

The ending is the second and only other aspect of the movie that does not live up to the precedent set by most of the feature. Surrendering himself to the law after an epic confrontation with and escape from the many sides trying to kill him, Baby saves Debora but ends up in prison. Now, I have no problem with a downer ending, but Baby Driver doesn’t fully commit, as Debora sends him postcards in jail, we see character witnesses from throughout the film declaring his good intentions, and we see Debora waiting for him upon his release in a not-quite-real-but-maybe-it-is final shot, despite his sentence being 25 years with only the chance for parole after 5, an awkwardly convoluted possibility hindered further by the stunted development of Debora in the second act where she was demonstrated to be impulsive and little else. It’s a confusing, watered down, and rushed conclusion, which leaves the audience discontent, a devastating shame considering how high this movie’s highs are, with even the credits rocking out to the incredible soundtrack and only lasting a refreshingly few minutes.

Baby Driver is undeniably the best movie I’ve seen in 2017 so far and an absolute must see. I had downed an entire large popcorn by the end of the 1st act as I lost myself in the exceptionally pleasing adventure that sprawled out before me. From over the top action to genuinely touching romance to laugh out loud comedy, Edgar Wright assures that everything good in this movie goes above and beyond to absolutely great. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel that somewhere down the production line, the people working on this film didn’t quite understand its potential, as a slight script revision could have easily fixed the ending’s pace and the second act lull. Overall, though, Baby Driver is everything you could ask for from a summer action movie, supremely better than the straightforward premise could ever suggest, and is the greatest musical to ever give  The Fast and the Furious franchise a run for its car-based action’s money.

8/10

Great

Wonder Woman Review

Breaking her teeth on the glass ceiling.

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Director: Patty Jenkins

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Rating: PG-13

US Release: June 2, 2017

It’s difficult to review any film with as massive a cultural impact as Wonder Woman. The fact is, for 76 years, Wonder Woman has been not only a feminist icon (disregarding a certain period around 1968 in the comics), but the most empowering and impressive example of a strong, capable woman on the stage of hyper masculine dudes in spandex that holds the comic book movie genre. The fact alone that, prior to this film, the only female led superhero movies were Halle Berry’s Catwoman and Jennifer Garner’s Elektra  means Wonder Woman is in an exclusive club from the outset. However, it has more in common with these movies than many think.

Wonder Woman is not a good movie. In fact, it is a notably bad movie, plagued with cringe-inducing dialogue, bad performances, undefined characters, and all manner of problems that have become staples in DC’s cinematic attempt to combat its chief rival, Marvel. Despite a charming 2nd act respite featuring some genuinely endearing fish-out-of-water sequences with Gal Gadot’s titular hero in 1918 London, the film struggles to figure out what it is, sputtering from one hastily cut action sequence to the next and, ultimately, falling flat.

From the beginning, a slow pan in on the globe to Paris featuring uninspired voice over narration pondering the goodness of men from Gadot, the film sets the tone for dragging, exposition heavy scenes that prove prominent in the first hour or so of the film. While Gadot plays a modern day Diana Prince in the first few minutes of the film, collecting relics from her past in the aforementioned Paris, we soon travel to her past through another slow zoom onto the original copy of the old photo of her from Batman v Superman.

Once the film’s actual plot begins, we are transported back to Themyscira, an island of only women all with slightly different fake accents, a problem that purveys with Chris Pine’s American Englishman, that is hidden from the world of men, and dished out a heavy dose of animated exposition in the form of a bedtime story from Prince’s mother, queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. Here, Connie Nielsen’s character sets up Ares, the main antagonist, and hints at Diana being the daughter of herself and Zeus. Hippolyta tries to hold some presence in the story as an obstacle for Diana, as she does not want her daughter to be trained as a warrior like the other women of the island, but this is almost immediately forgotten as we quickly transition to an adult Diana fully trained by Robin Wright’s Antiope, Diana’s aunt and war hero of the Amazons.

Soon thereafter, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor appears literally out of a hole in the sky and  crashes his plane into the sea surrounding Themyscira, pursued by German battleships. After a short scene of forced flirtation between Steve and his rescuer Diana, the island is attacked by his followers, resulting in our first battle sequence that kills off the only character not already stale, Antiope. From here, Steve is interrogated, reveals he was a British spy and that he’s trying to stop the war, and takes a bath for a gratuitous nude scene with Gadot filled with off-putting penis jokes and a standout performance from Pine’s abs. If all of this sounds a little rushed, it’s because it is. Suffering, somehow, from the same pacing as Suicide Squad, despite only starring one hero, the intro to Wonder Woman rushes past, with deaths and romances appearing out of no where and no time left to provide any weight to anything involving the Amazonians or explain the myths that provide their sudden appearance in the DC movie mythos.

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Agreeing to leave Themyscria with Pine to defeat Ares, with little resistance from the, again, ineffectual Hippolyta, the two sail, a sequence with even more uncomfortable flirtation, to London, presenting us with the only genuinely enjoyable part of the film. Despite the unfunny and awkward performance of Etta Candy by Lucy Davis, a comic relief character as blatantly incongruous with the rest of the film as Jar Jar Binks was in the Star Wars prequels, Gadot’s unsure performance pays off as she struggles to fit in not only to her written lines but with the society presented by the film. While much of the intended comedy falls flat, the awkward delivery of lines and a particularly odd dress-up scene proves enough to at least inject the film with a much needed midpoint of levity. The costumes, in fact, prove one of the crowning achievements of the film, as Suicide Squad proved they just give the costume design Oscar away and DC seems keen to bank on this fact. Again, however, the delivery in this sequence of scenes, which introduces David Thewlis’s Sir Patrick Morgan in a Scooby-Doo like fashion for the third act attempt at a twist, highlights the film’s biggest problem; despite having an overall impressive ensemble cast, the performances are utterly atrocious. Pine’s superficially charming Trevor stumbles over predictable and lazy one-liners, Davis’s bumbling Candy is boring in her by-the-books sassiness, and Thewlis’s fake-out good guy Morgan is stale and well below what he is capable of. Gadot herself, as previewed in Dawn of Justice, relies heavily on cute smirks reminiscent of Jim Halpert and dips in the dialogue where, in any competent production, the viewer could insert their own emotional interpretation, but here they seem only like Pine and Gadot forgot their lines and opted to joke around after only knowing each other for a few minutes and not quite knowing what would make the other laugh. Even the more empowering scenes, like a notable alley rescue, are undercut by confused direction in the script, where, despite the toted progressiveness of the feature, characters can’t stop remarking on how “distracting” and hot Gadot is…a jarring trend throughout.

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Nowhere, however, does Wonder Woman demonstrate its faulty dialogue and embarrassing incompetence in its performances more than with Danny Huston’s unimposing, laughable, cartoonishly villainous General Ludendorff and the unforgivably, plain-and-simple bad Elena Anaya as Doctor Poison. This should come as no surprise, to some degree. When put together, from Room in Rome, (Anaya’s performative attempt at a provocative love story between two gay women that proved more pornagraphic than artistic), to Huston’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, (a movie so bad that it killed beloved character Deadpool’s chances in cinema until Ryan Reynolds put his reputation on the line to revive them), the two have proven a copious amount of times that no matter the competence of the production in which they play their part, they will inevitably drag it down; and Wonder Woman is not a competent production.

Their plan is simple (Zach Snyder and the Warner Bros. team are not capable of producing genuine complexity in their films anyways); create a new strain of Mustard Gas that replaces sulfur with hydrogen, rendering gas masks unusable. Beyond this somewhat interesting premise, the pair of antagonists have so much shit between them it is difficult to determine where to begin. Much like Hippolyta, Ludendorff is introduced with a set of characteristics that quickly vanish. When Trevor steals the notebook of Dr. Poison before arriving on Themyscira, in a sequence showing both his incompetence as a spy and the films confusion as to what a spy is, the movie seems to be utilizing Huston’s lack of screen presence and doughy body shape to prove an insecure and therefor angry and warmongering villain. However, in the same scene, as with Hippolyta, Ludendorff’s characterization is cast aside and, after inhaling some super serum-esque gas provided by Poison, his face starts to glow and, with the face of a constipated seizure, he gains super strength and the cartoonish characteristics of Boris, while Poison follows suit as his Natasha.

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When their plan to utilize the new deadly gas is rejected by German higher-ups, the two lock them in a room and release the gas, throwing in one gas mask and cackling in what is the single most egregious example of cartoon supervilliany in any movie attempting to be taken seriously, a painful to watch moment that holds only the merit of being the only distinctive moment in the near two-and-a-half hour slog that is Wonder Woman.

Reading the ingenious secret plan to “gas the front line”, Pine and Gadot, who have been denied assistance from the army, travel to recruit a rag-tag team of underdeveloped misfits from Pine’s past, each representing a unique stereotype and filling a trope we have, to some degree, seen a million times before. A skeevy, David Spade-esque lover, a drunken scotsman, and a swindling Indian, all of whom seem to serve no purpose towards any legitimate plot development and only work towards some cheap emotional manipulation later in the film. Without any real trouble, the group manages to reach No Mans Land, with Jenkins demonstrating, as she does throughout the film, a lack in understanding of pacing or the script, desperate to reach some engagement through the next set piece. Here, two of the biggest problems, after the villains, are accentuated; the effects and the sound (most of what makes up an action movie).

First, the effects. Throughout the movie, first visible on Diana’s home island where the backgrounds look no better than a painted soundstage and the forefront action could be a flash animation from the early days of YouTube. In the trench sequence, and a subsequent battle in the village occupied by Germans the team liberates, it is painfully obvious that the budgeting for this film was significantly lower than its contemporaries. Where other riskier projects like Deadpool chose to embrace their limitations and cleverly manipulate a smaller budget, Wonder Woman smashes buildings and deflects bullets just like her male counterparts, but looks a lot worse doing it.

Well, I should clarify. Gadot herself at no point looks bad in the film. In fact, one of its biggest flaws is focusing way to much on slow-motion beauty shots reminiscent of Baywatch as Gadot moves in tandem with an incredibly tone deaf and inappropriate soundtrack instead of on the action, which itself is hastily cut and unfocused. This slow motion plagues even the down moments of the film, and Jenkins’s time scaling bites her in the ass with noticeable frame rate discrepancy and random use of time scaling techniques to rival even Snyder.

The music, as mentioned, is incredibly misused, as DC has chosen, for some confounding purpose, to replace the incredibly powerful duo of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL that debuted in Dawn of Justice, and gifted Wonder Woman with her electric cello based theme, with Rupert Gregson-Williams, whose style seems ripped from any number of mid-2000’s Lord of the Ring’s cash-in copies and does not mix at all with the romantic, time period comedy tone Jenkins primarily focuses on. In the action scenes, where this style would make some sense, it is replaced with the aforementioned theme, overplayed and yet underutilized as Gregson-Williams seems to misinterpret completely what made the music so great. This is not helped by disturbingly bad sound mixing, an increasingly overlooked part of movie production, which renders dialogue loud, backing music louder, and punches and explosions dull and blurred together to the point of lulling white noise.

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An action scene like this one highlights the tonal dissonance the music fails to compensate for. Starting as a period drama, moving to a romantic comedy, shifting to an action movie, and then briefly touching on a castrated, PG-13 rendition of darker war movies like Saving Private Ryan, Jenkins seems desperate to please with a little of everything and fails to succeed to any meaningful degree with anything.

After the assault on the village we are treated to another tonally inconsistent segment, wherein another cartoonish trope occurs, after the group gathers together for a gratuitously self referential taking of the photo introduced in Dawn of Justice. Our drunken scotsman plays piano and begins to sing, which, we are told and not shown, he has not done in years and we should be very moved over, and a snowfall comes out of nowhere so that Gadot and Pine can, holding each other with the kind of lack of romance and genuine chemistry only a cynical cash in like this film can produce, finally kiss.

From here, the movie shifts to a comical heist, wherein Pine disguises himself as an over exaggerated German official to gain access to a gathering with Ludendorff and Poison, and Gadot inexplicably appears in a highly conspicuous blue dress…the movie again taking spectacle in moments over any cohesive story telling. This scene bears mentioning primarily to discuss a particularly painful segment wherein Pine flirts with Poison, demonstrating Anaya’s utter incompetence in portraying the character and inducing excruciating cringes from any who care to expect more from a Hollywood actress. Gadot’s confrontation with Ludendorff, an awkward dance that gives some mild payoff for the dancing in the snow earlier, is just as awkward and demonstrative of Huston’s ineffectual performance, but comes nowhere near the agonizing ineptitude of Anaya.

Finally, after a failed attempt at a dramatic gas bombing slow motion drama sequence that cannot muster any response through its censored corpses and vague orange filter to represent the weapon, our protagonist team storms the proverbial castle for a final confrontation. Quickly dispatching Ludendorff we are, unsurprisingly, shown that he was not, in fact, Ares, but instead of providing an interesting or new take by revealing the god of war to be Dr. Poison (who disappears around this point in order to, presumably, use her power gas to set up Bane in a later franchise film), Thewlis’s Sir Patrick Morgan, seemingly out of nowhere, appears and, igniting his fist with what looks like the free lightening effect in Adobe Premier for Students, reveals himself a double agent looking to promote the war and, ultimately, the god thereof. From here, Thewlis’s character flies into the sky and we are forced to sit through the inevitable final battle of smoke and lightening that plagues so many of the less impressive superhero movies of late. Notably, when Thewlis goes into his final form, the effects become even more of a cluster fuck, and the action is nigh impossible to follow or care about, rendering Steve Trevor’s death largely ineffectual…a continuing trend as Ares is defeated and war supposedly lifted from the world.

As the light breaks through in the past, the camera pans in on Gadot’s always-cheekily-smiling face, and we flash once again to the present for a 4th voice over monologue before the credits role, we, the audience, are left wondering how every other major conflict occurred past this one if, indeed, Ares was defeated…a question largely ignored by the film.

Ultimately, there is some enjoyment to be found in Wonder Woman, though it largely is rendered from awkward performances and such service to the tropes of the genre that one has to laugh. Overall, however, it does absolutely nothing to rise above the worst of its peers, and Jenkins misses what could have been a home run for progressivism and the DC cinematic universe through aimless direction around a cringe-worthy script full of cheesy one-liners and monologues in almost every scene performed by actors who fail to bring any life to most of the poorly written lines. It isn’t the worst action movie out there – it’s probably not even the worst we’ll see this summer. But as far as being a milestone for womankind, Wonder Woman is more of a stumble back than any kind of giant leap into the future.

2/10

Bad