Baby Driver (2017)

Baby_Driver_poster.jpgEdgar Wright has a reverence for movies, he knows his movies, and when he makes his own movies there’s always an inherent understanding of the cinematic landscape–taking what’s already been done and proceeding to add his own affectionate spin on it.

There are aspects of his filmography from Shaun of the Dead (2004), to Hot Fuzz (2007), and Scott Pilgrim (2010) that are familiar but you can never accuse him of being derivative because he seems fairly incapable of that mode of filmmaking. Coming from such a tradition of off-kilter modern classics, it’s no surprise that Baby Driver is far from your typical heist film though it boasts both cars and crime in equal measures.

Part of what sets it apart is a soundtrack, something that has been put back in vogue recently by films such as Guardians of the Galaxy. It reflects how popular music can replace a score by tying itself so closely to the plot and the most important elements of its characters so much so that it becomes vital even to the narrative arc.

In this case, it involves Baby (Ansel Elgort) a young getaway driver plagued by the memory of a life-shattering car crash, one of the many traumas being tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that he helps to alleviate by constantly blocking it out with music. Thus, he can be found with a ubiquitous pair of earbuds tucked into his auditory canals ready with an iPod Classic full of tunes for every occasion (He even has a pink one with sparkles).

Of course, his driving songs prove to be the most important and he uses music to keep himself in the zone when he’s making the getaway. What helps him concentrate proves to be an equally thrilling experience for the audience, immersing us in the action in the most utterly electrifying and crowd-pleasing way possible. Cars swerving this way and that down the busy urban jungle of Atlanta with retro tunes blasting in surround sound. If that doesn’t epitomize a summer blockbuster than little does.

Criminal types including a psycho killer named Bats (Jamie Foxx) and an armed and dangerous couple Buddy & Darling (Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez respectively) are only a few of the colorful figures Baby falls into company with. Doc (Kevin Spacey) is their contact who runs all their operations with a plethora of inside contacts and a dry no-nonsense precision. He trusts Baby because he’s never steered him wrong. But it does beg the question how did this young man get himself into this life?

Because when he’s off “work” he spends time caring for his deaf foster father (CJ Jones), mixes audio cassette tapes out of his bedroom and frequents the local cafe that his mother used to work at. There’s also a waitress (Lily James) in said diner who intrigues him and brings him out of his shell with genial vivacity.  They share music as much as they share aspirations and mundane conversations.

But the danger is that the soundtrack becomes a gimmick and it’s true that Wright does a couple of no-nos including having his characters meet and subsequently fall in love over music, namely Carla Thomas’s 1966 hit “BABY” and Beck’s “Debora.” That’s an unforgivable cliche and yet we still want it and in his very best sequences he builds around the cadence and rhythms of the complementary songs that fit immaculately with the editing too. Whether a jaunt to grab coffee, the mundane creation of a peanut butter sandwich or a car chase, each becomes like a musical dance that’s surprisingly fresh.

If the genres of musicals and chase films ever had a point of intersection it would be Baby Driver. These opening moments have the energy of a Gene Kelly musical or even this past year’s La La Land pulsing through them. But it’s equally indebted to the heritage of The Driver (1978), Drive (2011), and of course the king of the heap, Bullitt (1968). The bottom line is that there is a care to deliver the goods as expected and have fun while doing it. There’s something refreshing about practical stunts that don’t utilize CGI and nevertheless manage to feel all the more exhilarating and real. There’s no question that this is an action film. But an action film set to the beat of the music.

Unfortunately, after setting such a fascinating groundwork for a film and delivering on a concept that seems admittedly absurd at times, it does feel that Baby Driver descends into utter chaos–action film hell if we want to coin a term–full of profane violence. No longer does it fully utilize the concept that it was built around or the engaging methods it initially used to draw the audience into yet another colorful creation of genre fiend Edgar Wright.

It’s as if the final act of the film doesn’t quite know where to go. The characters start to deviate from the axes that they have been moving on thus far. Not unsurprisingly Buddy is bent on getting revenge on Baby but Baby also shows a darker side without much provocation and Doc suddenly becomes a romantic sticking his neck out for the young lovebirds. There’s a certain amount of confusion on what direction to go next.

However, you could easily make the case that these developments are simply mirroring reality for a getaway driver, especially one as young as Baby. This is partially a tale of maturation. Losing innocence and trying to find it again without completely blocking out the world around you. In the end, the film settles down just enough into a conclusion that fits the parameters set up in the beginning. It’s lifted from the bloody wreckage and actually slows down long enough to ground itself in its characters once more as stylish and satisfying as ever.

4/5 Stars

Hot Fuzz (2007)

220px-HotFuzzUKposterWhen we go to see the latest action movie are we consciously thinking about what we are ingesting, what the motives of the characters are, or even the film’s title? More often than not the answer is no, because we want to be entertained, like Romans attending gladiator battles. We want thrills above content, without considering what we are being fed. In the line of these types of films are Lethal Weapon, Point Break, and now Britain’s addition Hot Fuzz.

It’s the story of probably, the most industrious, skilled, highly-trained policeman you could imagine. His name is Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) and he’s a butt-kicking, paperwork-completing sergeant, who is making the rest of the force look bad. He has the potential to be a great action hero. Enter in Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy, and they agree to reassign him to the sleepy of village of Sanford, and all his dreams are kaput. Ambition will lead him nowhere in such a town, and it feels more like Mayberry than the locale for a great action flick.

But being as diligent as he is, Angel makes strides even before he starts his first day. Among one of his arrests at the local pub is fellow police officer Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who also happens to be the son of the police inspector. It’s rather a strange introduction, but of course, the two of them are partners. Nick simply tries to tolerate all those around him, but it proves difficult, and he’s a little taken aback by the geniality of the locals. They all seem to know his name.

However, when a string of grisly murders takes place successively around town, Angel has what he wants, something to investigate. Again, everyone around him says it’s all been a line of unpleasant accidents. They aren’t willing to face the reality that their sleepy little town might have a murderer on the loose.

As you might expect Angel and Buttermann actually begin to build some rapport despite how different they are. However, Hot Fuzz also has a major twist that frames this entire story in a different light. And although the film does exhibit its share of violence, it also has a wickedly funny streak running through it. At times that means laugh-out-loud antics, courtesy of Nick Frost, or maybe uneasy giggles when someone bites the dust in an outrageous manner.

Edgar Wright’s film is also noticeable for its rapid editing, involving quick cuts, flying transitions, and slicing and dicing. It keeps the story at breakneck speed and yet there is a great pathos built around its characters. We actually begin to care for Nick and Danny, which is often not the case in superficial action flicks. But that’s just it. Hot Fuzz is a satirical homage to all the cop/buddy movies out there and it has its share of action, and yet there’s more to it. In other words, action films are not just skin deep. Hot Fuzz proves that resoundingly. It’s a throwaway title maybe, but not a throwaway film.

4/5 Stars

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

220px-Shaun-of-the-deadImagine that, it took me until after I finished the film to realize that its title was an obvious homage to Dawn of the Dead. And why not, because this comedy-zombie film celebrates the genre and George Romero’s lineage, while also carving out its own little niche. Really, this first installment from Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright is brilliantly clever in its own right.

What I’ve come to recognize from their partnership is that they are all for the gags, the gore, and excitement, but they also have a handle on emotional impact. The worlds they build through script and character are certainly fun and engaging. I’m not even a big fan of zombie films, but this is probably one of my favorites and that’s because it’s more than just a superficial apocalyptic romp. Heaven forbid I actually care for these characters, but I do. Even Nick Frost, who is oftentimes a real idiot, but even he still finds ways to endear himself.

Simon Pegg goes through your typical hero’s journey, it’s just that it involves a lot of zombies. He begins as a washed-up assistant manager in a dead end job, with a romantic relationship that he’s really messing up. His girlfriend isn’t too happy with him as of late, and after 17 years he’s still at odds with his step-father (Bill Nighy). Meanwhile, his best friend Ed (Nick Frost) is making a nuisance of himself, playing video games and doing little else. It’s a real humdrum life that Shaun’s partaking of. You can see it in his demeanor, even his posture. If you didn’t know any better you’d think he’s a zombie or something. It’s true that Pegg and Wright have fun with a few gags like this, and even when the zombies take over the streets, Shaun hardly seems to notice. He’s so far gone in his own personal funk.

But in his case, a zombie apocalypse is just what he needs to kick-start his life again. He gains new meaning, asserts himself, and acknowledges how much he cares about those around him. He also gets to bash rows of zombies with a cricket bat and blow them up with a Winchester rifle for good measure, while saving his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), so that’s a major bonus.

Edgar Wright’s style is very dynamic and in your face, but within all the hubbub there are real moments of sincerity that elevate Shaun of the Dead not just above a lot of other zombie movies, but a lot of movies in general. Forget simply a zombie flick. This is a romance, a buddy film, and a redemption story all wrapped up into one. Simon Pegg proves himself as a leading man, who we would willingly follow during an apocalypse, especially given the other choices at hand.

4/5 Stars