BABY DRIVER (Movie Review)

BabyDriver
*** out of ****
Rated R
(for violence and strong language throughout)
Released:  June 28, 2017
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Elza
González, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones

I think I just saw Quentin Tarantino’s favorite new movie.

No, Baby Driver isn’t Tarantino-esque in the sense that reference evokes. Rest assured, this is the next natural progression for director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs The World), a master of contemporary pop cinema who riffs on styles with a style all his own.

And that’s exactly what a guy like Tarantino would love: a movie that puts a new spin on a classic genre, reimagining it rather than satirizing it, loving tropes rather than mocking them, infusing everything with pulpy high stakes and super cool swagger, all with heavy doses of vinyl-worthy music.

Okay, so this movie’s millennial hero listens to his tunes through earbuds, not on wax discs, but he’s still a maker of mixtapes – on actual cassettes – and his iPods (yes, plural) are first-gen retro. Baby’s hipster cache is fully intact.

Baby Driver is a crime thriller by way of neo-musical, cut to the beat – literally – of classic rock, pop, and R&B tracks. The actors don’t sing or dance, but songs and choreography are very much a part of this film’s glocks, shocks, and four smoking tires whirlwind.

Baby (aka the baby driver) is a young twenty-something who applies his unmatched driving skills to steering the getaway car for professional robbers. He listens to music non-stop, especially when driving, fueling him like a superpower. The film opens with a high-speed car chase through the streets of Atlanta, one that includes a really clever “shell game” visual. It follows a bank heist and, as vehicular mayhem erupts, Baby drives through it all with cool intensity and Jedi-like reflexes.

It’s also the last job of his young career, the final run that will pay off the debt he owes to the criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), the man who orchestrates these gigs. Of course, when a movie opens with one last job we know that it won’t be too long before Baby’s pulled right back in.

In this case, it’s very much against his will. The collateral violence and death, both on innocent people as well as among criminals themselves, is weighing hard on Baby’s conscience. He’s a good kid that Life dealt a bum break, and he wants to correct course. But Doc won’t let him.

The film’s first half sort of meanders through various relationship setups and new robber teams, and while it’s all done with panache the success of the overall experience comes down to two things: do you dig Baby, and do you love being inundated (at times pummeled) by a near-non-stop soundtrack.

The songs are great, no doubt, and include the ditty that inspired the title character’s name (if you don’t know the classic, that means you’re not old), but they’re also indicative of the opening act’s style-over-substance simplicity. After awhile you begin to wonder if there’s any “there” there, not in terms of thematic depth (because who needs it in a movie like this?) but simply in characters and relationships you actually care about beyond dangerous cool people who butt heads, and a sweet if standard love interest for Baby at the local diner.

More frankly, Baby Driver could use less Baby and more driving.

What would that contradiction even mean? It means that there’s not nearly as much driving as one would expect (#FastButNotAlwaysFurious), and the character development roads that the script goes down feel rather conventional, even with Wright’s gift for dialogue and humor (although the sentimental connection between Baby and his deaf foster dad is the film’s best).

But more than anything, as Baby, Ansel Elgort (The Fault In Our Stars) isn’t quite the charismatic screen presence you’d hope for, or that the role really needs. To his credit, Elgort improves as the film goes along, and he rises to the occasion down the final stretch when circumstances cause Baby to make brave, bold choices, but he’s never strong enough to make you want to see more of this Baby in a sequel, or to have directors give him a shot in meatier material. He’s a respectable actor, but a star is not born.

Indeed, the entire supporting cast essentially upstages the lead. A forgivable downside, as they’re responsible for so much of the movie’s fun, tension, and thrills. Every casting choice is on point, with Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm being every bit as cool as you’d expect them to be while also adding an intimidating punch.

Wright is in complete and total control of every moment in this thing, including the excesses, so even if you find its indulgences to be overkill (mileage will vary, pun intended) there’s no doubt this is exactly the movie that Wright wanted to make. He’s always been a precise visionary, not one who shoots for “coverage”, yet even as some sequences here required multiple cameras rolling you can still see that it’s all by design, not Wright doing an editorial CYA.

Even with all that style, however, one can’t help but feel there’s something missing – an intangible – without Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Wright’s Brit-crew in the picture. It’s commendable that Wright expands outside that safety net, and does so successfully here, but it’ll take time to reproduce the chemistry that comes from his comfort zone.

All that nitpicking having been said, Baby Driver is not a movie to overthink. As Guillermo del Toro tweeted, this is a beautiful example of an inspired filmmaker who, after being dumped by Marvel on Ant-Man,”comes out of a debacle with a movie that declares his credo again.”

This is a cinematic ride to enjoy and Wright makes it easy to, especially as he brings the first half’s loose threads together (not unlike a great mixtape) into sharp, potent focus, and in occasionally surprising ways; it’s just not the new modern masterpiece that some have overhyped it be.

But it doesn’t need to be. Baby Driver is why people go to the movies. So go.

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THE BEGUILED (2017) (Movie Review)

beguiled
***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for some sexuality, violent injuries, and brief language)
Released:  June 23, 2017 NY/LA; June 30 expands
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Emma Howard, Addison Riecke

It’s pretty rare when a non-specific one-word title so effectively fits the movie its labeling, because general descriptors can apply to so many other stories, but The Beguiled is perfectly named in every conceivable way.

Whether describing the young women at the center of this tense Southern Gothic tale, or the eerie hypnotic tone that steeps director Sofia Coppola’s aesthetic, or simply what we the audience become, The Beguiled lives up to its name.

Exploring polar opposite versions of Coppola’s young & entitled modern day female Bling Ring burglars, The Beguiled is a psychodrama that emerges from dropping virile masculinity into the midst of sheltered femininity. It’s 1864 Virginia, and a girl from an all-female boarding school discovers a wounded and sickly Union soldier (Colin Farrell) in the woods nearby. Despite initial reservations, the head mistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) decides to take the man in, patch him up, and hopefully save his life.

Cloistered there are the teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and five students descending in age from teen (Elle Fanning’s Alicia) to grade school. Once the girls’ initial collective hysteria calms down, the reactions to the man vary, from intrigued to cautious to fearful – but all completely fascinated.

As the soldier heals and fears subside, the girls are, well, beguiled by his charms, and the three oldest women find their sexuality awakened, albeit with chaste hesitation. Each tests the boundaries of their passions: Edwina is shy, Alicia more forward, while Martha exerts control. Martha, being the oldest, knows how to draw the line with her desires in a way the other two do not.

Even the prepubescent girls can’t help but be drawn to the soldier, as he slyly – even respectfully – spins his web with each. An insidiously gentle tempter, the soldier ingratiates himself with the younger girls as he looks to see which of the women he can successfully seduce, and stirs jealousies among them all. But his prey are the three oldest, and his flattering temptations – each tailored to what each woman needs – grow increasingly harder to resist.

In the hands of a lesser director and cast, with artists more provoked by the lurid melodrama than the human vulnerabilities, this would all be played in amplified strokes and to lesser, baser effect. Instead, Coppola contains everything. It makes for a truer representation of the time and place (as well as a more taut build of suspense), relying on her actresses to summon and wrestle with the carnal urges that belie their Christian morals and social constructs.

Coppola finds potency in simplicity, utilizing lingering looks and stealing glances by the women as they gaze on parts of the soldier’s torso and body. These POV’s aren’t salacious, they’re completely human; internal flirtations that seem harmless at the time, instinctive. But each little indulgence is another step in a downward compulsive spiral.

Farrell is so cunning in how he doesn’t push his seductions, even playing them as virtuous or pure (although keeping his native Irish dialect provides a roguish undercurrent), while the three female leads exude their emotional ids with palpable intensity. Kidman especially, whose Martha is the only one able to also access her ego and super-ego, gives another showcase in what seems to be a new, confident peak in her career.

Both lush and minimalist, Coppola’s elegant yet earthy formalism is a stunning display of what gorgeous restraint can conjure. Director of Photography Philippe Le Sourd (best known for Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster) employs painterly still-frame precision that, quite brilliantly, evokes the period’s neoclassical and romantic portraits. These are some of the best images you’ll see on any screen all year.

Coppola also restrains from using music until the last half hour, and even then only applies ominous drones sparingly. The lack of an orchestral underscore, which allows the breezy Southern air to authenticate the atmosphere – punctuated by war heard in the distance – serves to amplify the veracity of what is otherwise an unabashed exercise in genre, one that crescendos to brutal conclusion.

This isn’t Sofia Coppola’s most thematically layered film (that could be The Virgin Suicides or, yes, even Marie Antoinette; stick it, haters) nor is it her most existentially resonate (make it Suntory Time, Lost in Translation), yet there’s a reason this garnered the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival: The Beguiled is Coppola’s most assured work of art.

OFCC Podcast: Episode 10 – TRANSFORMERS 5, CARS 3, BOOK OF HENRY, Han Solo Shakeup, & More (PODCAST)

ofcc

Episode 10: Deceptibomb, Cars Tune-Up, and Disturbances In The Force

For this edition of The OFCC Podcast, available on iTunes, a roundtable of critics from the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle discuss the latest in movies for late June 2017.

You can also stream Episode 10 by clicking here.

On this episode, the critics include:

NEW RELEASES
 Transformers: The Last Knight (starting at 2:20))
Cars 3 (2017) (at 15:30)
The Book of Henry (at 24:33)
Han Solo Movie Director Shakeup – Discussion (at 44:33)
Beatriz at Dinner (at 1:00:22)
Paris Can Wait (at 1:15:00)

Articles referenced:

Click here to subscribe through iTunes, and look for the June 23, 2017 episode.

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (Movie Review)

beatrizatdinner
*** out of ****
Rated R

(for strong language and a scene of violence)
Released: June 9, 2017 limited; June 23 expands
Runtime: 83 minutes
Director: Miguel Arteta
Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton,
Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, David Warshofsky

A movie about people talking that will get people talking, Beatriz at Dinner comes from the patron saint screenwriter of strong female roles.

Mike White’s most popular scripts have been for the Jack Black vehicles School of Rock and Nacho Libre, but his best work has been in the empathetic character portraits of women in existential crisis: The Good Girl (Jennifer Aniston) and the HBO series Enlightened (Laura Dern). Each one, truth be told, has been a proxy for White’s own melancholic disconnect with the world. Now there’s Beatriz at Dinner, which gives Salma Hayek her richest showcase since Frida fifteen years ago.

The film itself, which also boasts strong ensemble work (from John Lithgow especially), is a mesmerizing if biased Trump era critique, using an Hispanic outsider to indict rich white capitalists and the privilege they flaunt.

Its ideas are more personal than rigorous, emerging from feelings rather than reflections, which results in a final act that doesn’t know how to resolve itself. Beatriz at Dinner exists primarily, it seems, for White to vent his sociopolitical frustrations, not stir intellectual debate. Nevertheless, it remains emotionally provocative.

Beatriz is a health therapist for soul, mind & body, whose job allows her to be in the periphery of the One Percent but never of it. A very simple, earthy woman (Hayek is dramatically glammed-down) that practices Buddhism with Catholic leftovers, Beatriz lives by herself with her goats, to which she’s deeply attached.

Beatriz’s car breaks down at the house of a wealthy client, named Cathy (Connie Britton), who adores Beatriz.  Cathy invites Beatriz (who’s troubled by a recent loss) to the dinner she’s hosting; guests include Doug Strutt (Lithgow), a brash real estate developer…and Trump archetype.

So there’s your premise: Shy New Agey Hispanic Vegan Eastern Mystic gets dropped into the middle of gregarious high society Caucasians whose preoccupations are more material than spiritual. Awkward conversation ensues, and it’s fascinating for us, as an audience, to be a bug on that wall.

They talk about a wide variety of things, from business to politics to world travel, and it’s clear that White has been an observant participant in these circles before. He knows these people. A prime example is when Strutt dissects, in shrewd detail, how he’s able to develop property even in the face of progressive protestors and likely lawsuits. He doesn’t game the legal system because he doesn’t need to; he simply knows how to play it to his advantage.

Whether it’s this, or immigration, or hunting, or any number of other topics, Beatriz is, despite being calm and centered by nature, a hippie liberal who can’t stay quiet in the face of what she finds offensive, regardless if etiquette would suggest otherwise (and it does, as Beatriz is the outlier who’s been invited in).

Watching her speak frankly adds to the intrigue, with her ire increasing as its met with dismissive contempt, delivered in a patronizing guise of geniality. The cast plays these conversations with fresh, electric interplay, and an overlapping spontaneity that’s reminiscent of Robert Altman ensembles.

A more magnanimous movie would’ve found the humanity in both sides, but White’s disdain is too raw for such generosity. Even so, the elites here are fully formed, articulate people, not simplistic parodies, and Lithgow’s Trump stand-in is much more erudite and sophisticated than our 45th President.

To the extent these people are genuinely interested in hearing Beatriz share her perspectives, it comes from a curiosity that actually exposes unconscious bigotry. The best that can be said of these people is how sincerely clueless they are to their own sense of entitlement.

Tension builds and crescendos until it’s capped by a shocking contrivance that I won’t spoil, but it’s one that liberals will see as cathartic wish fulfillment. Though it may serve as a release for pent-up progressive rage, it doesn’t do the movie or the Beatriz character any favors, particularly in our current toxic political climate. Moreover, White and Arteta end up not having the guts to play this incendiary turn to a legitimate conclusion, and finally pull the punch.

Even so, the moment is so jarring that, if the film were more widespread in the public consciousness, Beatriz at Dinner would be easy fodder for conservative pundits. Coming off the heels of a horrific shooting targeted at Republican Congressmen (as well as infamous news items such as Kathy Griffin’s decapitated Trump head photo and the Trump-as-Caesar “Shakespeare in the Park” stabbing), the anger-fueled moment of seething liberal hatred that White contrives for Beatriz (and no doubt feels himself) only serves to solidify the caricature of the unhinged Democrat.

Then, to cement the fact that White and Arteta’s goal is to merely roleplay their outrage rather than actually say something, the story abruptly ends on a cryptic cop out. At 75 minutes, Beatriz at Dinner is a movie that’s unfinished. Ideas are left on the table, unsaid or unexamined, not out of laziness but simply a lack of desire to dig deeper. White and Arteta don’t want to challenge the audience or even their own biases; they just want to unload.

What could’ve been a Thinking Person’s movie ends up simply being an angry, pissed off one, leaving us with a mostly invigorating piece of cinematic theatre that ultimately sells itself, its concerns, and us short.

MY COUSIN RACHEL (Movie Review)

mcr
**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some sexuality and brief strong language) 
Released: June 9, 2017
Runtime: 106 minutes
Directed by: Roger Michell

Starring: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Hilliday Grainger, Iain Glen

My review of My Cousin Rachel, for The Tulsa Voice, a period suspense thriller based on a novel by the author of Hitchcock adaptations Rebecca and The Birds.

An excerpt from my review:

My Cousin Rachel is a piping pot of well-crafted suspense, yet it succumbs to one lethal liability that contaminates the entire brew: a young actor who’s out of his depth.”

To read my full review, click here.

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT (Movie Review)

Transformers5
*1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13

(for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo)
Released: June 22, 2017
Runtime: 150 minutes
Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, Isabela Moner, Josh Duhamel, Jerrod Carmichael, Stanley Tucci, Santiago Cabrera

Transformers movies are the worst. Just ask anyone. Yet Michael Bay keeps making them because, despite being the most popular franchise to mock and ridicule, people keep watching them.

Loud. Bombastic. Chaotic. Indulgent. A soulless metal-on-metal orgy of violence that’s both headache inducing and mind-numbing all at the same time, not to mention utterly confusing. Read any previous scathing review aimed at the first four movies in the Transformers saga (Parts 2 through 4 especially) and the same gripes will apply here in this fifth – and allegedly final – installment, Transformers: The Last Knight.

This time around, Bay expands the ever-evolving makeshift mythos to reveal that the alien Autobots have been helping protect Planet Earth for 1600 years. Now, however, they’re deemed threats to world order, so they’re being rounded up by a military task force. Cade Yeagar (Mark Wahlberg) is also a wanted man, covertly trekking the world to help rescue Transformers from capture, and living at a secret junkyard base that also serves as an Autobot sanctuary.

How this low-tech refuge eludes the tracking capabilities of the U.S. government is a mystery (well, until the movie needs it to be found), but plot holes and logical inconsistences are all part of this franchise’s milieu. Nevertheless, when the task force makes a deal with the devils – aka Decepticons – to find the stray Autobots, the cover for Yeagar’s getaway is blown, and everything else starts to blow up with it.

There’s a whole other layer, too, about the discovery of a link between Earth and Cybertron (the Transformer planet). This new information puts Earth in peril, turns Optimus Prime to Nemesis Prime, and it all builds up toward – you guessed it – a possible apocalypse.

For excessive measure, there’s a mythology thread that I don’t even have the energy to get into but, suffice it to say, it turns Yeagar into a Chosen One and the new academic hottie Vivian (Laura Haddock, aka Star-Lord’s mom Meredith Quill) into the final link in a family tree dating back to Merlin the magician, making her the sole genetic heir who can access an ancient relic and stop the devastation that’s coming. This would also seem to imply that Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky is dead now, but really, who cares?

The worst part of Bay’s patented obnoxious moviemaking is its pace. Scenes and shots are cut so quickly, and constantly, that your ability to process what you’re watching can’t keep up. It’s a real shame, too, because the lush, meticulous images that Bay crafts are actually pretty spectacular, especially with IMAX cameras. He just can’t sit on one for more than a second or two, and it’s maddening.

For all the frenzied nonsense that this movie vomits up and onto the screen, in a style so kinetically incoherent that it’s impossible to keep everything and everyone straight, the film’s worst attribute is actually its run time. Cut an hour out of its two-and-a-half hour length, make it a tight 90-minute special effects fireworks show of things blowing up real good (ditch the belabored mythology and flat robot comedy bits especially), and you’ve got yourself a dumb-but-thrilling multiplex movie ride.

Instead, like the others before it, Transformers: The Last Knight is a pummeling assault of visual and auditory monotony that would be fun if it didn’t relentlessly wear you down, and out.