Monday, 7 August 2017

Movie Review: Baby Driver (+ Q&A with Director/Writer Edgar Wright)



I briefly got into this when I went over Ant-Man, but it bears repeating: Edgar Wright is made of stone-cold awesome. Making his name with a penchant for cross-breeding genres like a cinematic alchemist, from the zombie-horror/romantic-comedy Shaun Of The Dead to the social sci-fi/martial arts action/restyled Arthurian legend of The World’s End, Wright is easily one of my all-time favourite filmmakers. In fact, I almost feel bad for first mentioning him on this blog during Ant-Man, given the rather dubious circumstances in which he left the project; knowing how good this guy is, the last thing you should hear is him being dropped over “creative differences”. Nevertheless, the man is back with a vengeance with a film that has somehow managed to outdo Get Out in terms of explosive hype; the trailers for it over here boasted a full 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, something that has since changed because nothing is perfect, and barely any films even get to that point during the press lead-up. Since this is another occasion where, even if I never picked up this critical gig, I’d still be compelled to watch his latest effort. So, how good is it? This is Baby Driver.


The plot: Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey), who specializes in bank robberies. As his obligation to Doc draws to a close, Baby connects with diner waitress Debora (Lily James) and plans to get away from his life of crime. However, it seems that Doc and his team comprised of Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonz├ílez) aren’t about to let him go so easily.

Elgort has inhuman grace and smoothness as the title character, serving as a very good focal point for the film around him; James, while a little plain on her own, makes for a surprisingly solid romance with Elgort, connecting over their love for music that definitely echoes what is truly at the heart of this whole production; Spacey oozes quiet and menacing authority with every word, coming across as the kind of puppet master that would be behind the kind of heists in this story; Hamm and Gonz├ílez make for another remarkably endearing on-screen couple, each channelling their own brand of action-movie-bravado in their wake; Foxx is in prime scene-stealing form, becoming a slightly insane voice of reason for what’s going on around him; and CJ Jones is very endearing as Baby’s guardian, with their conversations making for the most emotionally resonant moments of the whole film. Oh, and there’s plenty of musician cameos, from Paul Williams in a very strange criminal role to ATLiens Big Boi and Killer Mike in the background.

This has got to be one of the slickest films I’ve ever covered on this blog. Tapping once again into his own fanboy love for the art form, Wright basically uses this entire production as an example of how to do ‘style over substance’ without immediately siding to the rather unfortunate implications of that tag. As much as I try and go over deeper meaning in the films I review on here, I have a real love for films like this when they are done right. And oh boy, is it done right here. Going for a similar ‘tribute to the films I grew up with’ formula popularized by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (both of whom are thanked in the credits, in one of many nods to Wright’s influences), this is an action film with the kind of pacing that hacks like Michael Bay could only dream of. It is mesmerizing how smoothly this film goes through every single scene, taking what essentially makes action, heist and vehicle-centric movies in general work and pushing them all into the foreground. The action scenes are bonkers, maintaining a tangible reality while still flaunting Rule Of Cool for all it’s worth. Even though we don’t actually see any of the heists Baby takes part in, the resulting car chases show that you don’t need computers to make for good car stunts nowadays. Although, to be fair, having wizards like Double Negative batting clean-up certainly doesn’t hurt. The way that everything just glides into each other in terms of structure and production values at once feels incredibly laboured-over and almost misguidedly care-free. That may sound like a drawback, but trust me on this: If you want bad-ass, this film will provide.

That sense of tight precision easily shows itself the most through the film’s use of music. Now, I’m a real sucker for good use of licensed songs in films and, even in overall bad features like Fist Fight, I will always go out of my way to tip my hat. Not that I need to this time, as this film’s love for sweet tunes is woven into the entire production. For a start, the song choices themselves are all solid, comprised of ideal road trip rock and a few touches of hip-hop (with an original song by Run The goddamn Jewels). However, they enter the realm of potential genius when put into the larger context of the film, as pretty much every scene is tailored to the song playing in it. Whether it’s character blocking, gun fire or actual dancing, most if not all of what we see on screen is done in tempo to the soundtrack; it’s like the film itself can’t help but dance to the beat. Add to this Wright’s replay-worthy approach to staging and writing, and you have a film that seems to be more and more about the music the more you read into it. I’d say that the writing’s on the wall, except the writing of the lyrics is literally on the wall in the opening credits, resulting in one of the quickest affirmations of “this is brilliant” I’ve had all year. It also incorporates the in-universe reason for the music (Baby’s tinnitus) into the backing score, it keeps the audience inside Baby’s head, even as a character of few words. And on top of that, the pathos given to Baby’s connection to music, from mixing his own tracks out of random conversations he’s in (done expertly IRL by Kid Koala of Deltron 3030 fame) to how he got his tinnitus, is quite disarming. Wright has always shown an aptitude for soundtrack scenes in his works, and it seems like he decided to just make an entire film out of those moments and, honestly, it’s rather brilliant in how it’s done.

However, with all that said, I can’t shake this feeling that something is off with this whole thing. This is Edgar Wright’s first film effort in over two decades without a co-writer on board. Honestly, it shows. While the direction and production values here are definitely to his standard, and in some cases it shows new heights for his talent, the scripting here feels oddly plain. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good and there’s plenty of funny conversations to be had, but it lacks that punch of his previous works. It doesn’t have the subversive spirit of his collabs with Simon Pegg, nor the earnest weirdness of his team-ups with Joe Cornish; it’s rather to-the-point, and while still serviceable, it’s a bit of a step backwards. I mean, Wright has made his name with an eternally fanboy-tinged approach to genre fare, at once cheekily sending up common tropes and managing to do those same tropes better justice than most others could ever manage. It’s because of this that his films are as re-watchable as they are, with each new viewing unveiling more of the intricate details that help tie everything together into these incredibly cohesive packages. This, on the other hand? Outside of a couple of really resonant moments, and of course the classic-soaked soundtrack, there’s nothing here that really compels to watch it again. This is a weird stance to be in, considering my very one-and-done approach to watching films for review, but that’s part of what makes Wright’s oeuvre so appealing to me in the first place. This is fun in the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most audiences didn’t recall much of the film outside of that feeling of enjoyment. Nothing wrong with that; just that I expect just a little bit more from someone like Wright.

All in all, Edgar Wright delivers once again with some classics worship filtered through his own idiosyncratic stylings; who else would make a jukebox musical like this? With a head-over-heels love for music and bombast, the solid cast and almost-symphonic rhythm to every single gear in the production makes for the kind of cinematic gumbo that audiences have been sorely missing of late. However, for as entertaining and well-constructed as it is, its fascinating qualities pretty much end with its production stylings, as the writing isn’t much to write home about. This being one of his weaker offerings should frankly be bragging rights for him; even on a half-tank, he can still outperform most directors working right now. It ranks higher than Lion, as I just have to pay my own respects to the absolute effort on display with this one. However, since this film is ultimately popcorn fare by its very nature, it doesn’t register as highly with me as Churchill, which honestly hit a lot harder emotionally.

After all that, though, I still have some lingering questions; some of this still doesn’t completely add up. If only there was a way I could talk to Edgar myself to clear up a few things… oh wait.


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