Wright’s Killer Track

In the mind of Edgar Wright, music and movies go hand in hand. The British writer/director has become one of film’s culture most adored auteurs not only for his clever writing, creative comedic directing, and unabashed love for pop culture, but his incredible detail combining the action of scenes with the pumping energy of music. Everything from police paperwork to beating up an elderly zombie can be made special with the right music in Wright’s mind. So of course, an action movie about a getaway driver who only functions by listening to music constantly would be Wright’s passion project for the last 20 years. Most of the high points of his movies have been the musical montages that act as lively interludes to keep scenes going, like mini-music videos that cap off plot points. So why not make a nearly-two hour music video?

 

Baby Driver, Wright’s first feature in four years, takes place on the streets of Atlanta and opens with an excitable young man jamming out to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a suped-up Subaru. Don’t be fooled by the fresh-faced exuberance of Baby (Ansel Elgort), as he’s merely waiting for his crew to run out of the local bank with the loot and drive them through the streets at breakneck speed. His secret weapon: the tinnitus in his ears forces him to listen to music constantly to drown out any high-pitched ringing, but also makes him incredibly proficient at drifting between cop cars and maneuvering through traffic. This makes him the lucky charm of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a local crime boss Baby owes a major debt to. While he’s worked many jobs with Doc’s crew, ranging from the eternally romantic Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) to the hair-triggered nutjob Bats (Jamie Foxx), Baby finds something more when he falls in love with the angel-voiced waitress, Debora (Lily James). But just because Baby wants out of the game doesn’t mean Baby gets to walk away from the game.

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On a surface level, Baby Driver is a very simple story. It’s the classic crime story of the lone rogue who’s never been cool with a life of crime and just wants out. But just when he thinks he’s out, cue Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III. Usually Wright’s stories aren’t as straight-forward as they seem, there’s always something else going on in the background. Baby Driver is probably one of the more traditional stories of his career, no great plot twist or background commentary throwing the audience for a loop or defying expectations. But like other Wright movies, it’s more about the presentation than the product itself, and Baby Driver is certainly his most ambitious show to date. Somewhere between an inverted jukebox musical and a long-form music video, Baby Driver has nearly every scene perfectly synced-up with the eclectic soundtrack, which ranges from Beck to The Damned to Young MC. When the film rolls out its opening credits to Baby strutting down the street like Gene Kelly dancing to the title of Singin’ in the Rain, the street comes alive accentuating each little pip in Baby’s step. Wright’s editing duo of Jonathan Amos (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Paul Machliss (The World’s End) cut gunshots, car drifts, and even the mildest head tick to the beat of the drum. It’s a cute gimmick and impressive to see done at near-feature length, though it loses its luster near the end of the movie and it can become disorienting after a while.

 

But even without the gimmick, Baby Driver is still a damn good time. The action set pieces are fantastic thanks to their stripped-down nature. Mixing the cracking soundtrack with driving sequences not overly-cut while remaining fast-paced allows for continuous propulsion throughout the movie. At just under two hours, the movie flies by with almost zero filter distracting from the main story. That’s mostly in part to the great cast fully invested in the need for hammy action-talk and Wright’s typically funny dialogue. For this being Wright’s big American debut (Scott Pilgrim being technically Canadian), some of Hollywood’s best wanted in on the party and don’t disappoint. Jamie Foxx has never been such an impressive combination of menacing and funny before, leagues more impressive than his turn as Electro in the embarrassing Amazing Spider-Man 2. Kevin Spacey is a fine crime boss despite not leaving that much of an impression. The MVPs are the one-two punch of Jon Hamm and Lily James: the former as the smoldering henchman that brings the most charisma to the movie, and the latter being the sultry, 50s-era damsel that woos Baby. In fact, Hamm himself plays somewhat of a grizzly older James Dean wannabe. Oddly enough, the weakest member of the cast is the lead. Elgort certain has the energy and the young baby face (no pun intended), but his own moments of smoldering intensity seem like a joke that the movie isn’t in on. He’s also not bringing enough charisma to be fun to watch and looks like a pouting elementary school kid when he’s trying to be serious. Elgort is in an awkward position where’s he too old to be a cutesy teen heartthrob and yet still has the face of a Degrassi cast member. In his defense, he has some strong chemistry with James that culminates in a rather romantic scene where the two chat in a laundromat connected by Baby’s earbuds.

It’s tempting to call Baby Driver Edgar Wright’s worst film, and yet it’s all the more shocking that it’s still a great movie. While it may be missing Wright’s quick-witted British humor and wackier plot elements, it’s still another showcase for one of Hollywood’s best directors alive. The technical prowess and attention to detail that Wright exudes is on display now more than ever, it’s almost the central focus of the movie. It’s certainly a film that requires repeated viewings to repeat every detail for film fans, along with being a breath of fresh air for summer action audiences. Wright has officially arrived in America, and his future is as open as the road Baby and Debora dream for themselves.

3.5/4 

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Acceptable Wonder

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Warner Bros. and DC finally have a good movie on their hands, but that doesn’t mean the movie (or their cinematic universe) is fixed.

Alright, I’ll admit it: Warner Bros. and DC are brilliant.

 

The partnering studio/comic-book company took on the nearly-impossible task of trying to keep up with Disney and Marvel Studios by creating their own superhero cinematic universe. Since its inception in 2013, they’ve had three false starts with Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. Taking out any discussion of being faithful comic book adaptations and whatnot, those three films stand out as unique failures for being bad on basic filmmaking levels, from unnecessary zoom-ins and collateral damage (Man of Steel), to constant shaky-cam and confused character development (Dawn of Justice), and then terrible editing with unfocused tone (Suicide Squad). Ignoring the childish war for validation between Marvel and DC fans, the bottom line was that these were poorly-made movies that lowered the expectations of fans with every new installment. So now the bar has been set so low, not worst case scenario but low enough, where an action-adventure movie made with the most basic expectations of filmmaking is practically a godsend.

 

Yes, Wonder Woman is a fine movie, occasionally even a damn good one, but the concern is that it’s because on top of its flaws (which are obvious and gaping), the movie has very basic technical elements to it. Basically, we should’ve been getting this quality of filmmaking for the past four years. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) gets everything off on the right foot with the gorgeous island of Themyscira inhabited by the fearless female warriors, the Amazons. The spunky oddball of the Amazons is Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), sheltered by her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), but secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana wants to explore the outside world, which fortunately comes right to her shores when U.S. Army spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on Themyscira after evading German forces as the real world faces World War I. When Steve tells the Amazons about the horrors of the Great War and they turn him away, Diana grabs a sword, a shield, and a powerful lasso to sail away from her home and join Steve on the frontlines saving the world.

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Most of the credit for Wonder Woman goes to Jenkins and her production team for crafting the best looking film of the DC Extended Universe. Everything from the lost paradise of Themyscira to the barren war zone of Belgium looks gorgeous, thanks to Jenkins’s smooth flow of directing scenes and cinematographer Matthew Jensen’s (Chronicle, Game of Thrones) fluid combination of colors that don’t flood the scenes. Jenkins’s is also an impressive director of action, staging a great beach-front fight between the Amazons and German troops with a much more appropriate use of slow-motion and imagery worth of freeze-frames (see Antiope shooting three arrows at the same time…in mid-air). Same can be said for when Wonder Woman makes her grand debut in costume on the German frontlines, where Diana disrobes into the iconic costume and charges into battle blocking bullets. Unlike the previous DCEU films, Jenkins understands that action scenes should build upon themselves with elevating threats and seeing Wonder Woman go from blocking a barrage of bullets to hip-checking a German tank like she’s Malcolm Butler are well-earned displays of heroism. It’s a shame that action goes completely off the rails with the film’s overblown climax that harkens back to the Doomsday fight in Dawn of Justice too much.

 

Like the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman’s major problem is its story. Written by Jason Fuchs, Allan Heinberg (who went on to write the screenplay), and WB/DC stalwart Zack Snyder, the origins of Wonder Woman is solid with her crafted by her mother and brought to life by Zeus. It’s a typical outcast-to-the-rescue story that’s slightly similar to that of Marvel’s Thor. In fact, Wonder Woman’s main story is an obvious mesh of two of Marvel’s earlier cinematic universe installments: the “mythical being adjusts to humans” elements of Thor and the “superhero faces the realism of human war” elements of Captain America: The First Avenger. Wonder Woman owes a lot of its plot elements to Steve Rogers, whether it be the shadow influence of an evil force on the war or the fate of certain characters at the film’s climax. It all seems a bit too familiar without adding anything new. For all the complaints people have that Marvel movies all looking and playing out the same, Wonder Woman feels an awful lot like a real solid Marvel movie.

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Even the title character has a thing or two in common with Marvel’s Asgardian god of thunder. But where Chris Hemsworth brought a sense of classic Hollywood charm to Thor, Gal Gadot brings a beating heart and emotional weight to the Amazonian princess. She starts off precocious and innocent as she enters the human world, but Gadot really shows how the horrors of war can impact those seeing it for the first time. Gadot really captures the moment where Wonder Woman goes from wholesome untouched metahuman to a true warrior who understands the gravity of war. It’s exactly what the DCEU needs: levity with a strong sense of what a hero sacrifices, and Gadot brings it. She’s got a great partner in Chris Pine, bringing his own classic-style Hollywood charm to Steve Trevor. Pine has always felt like a 50s-era actor that wound up getting big in the new millennium (sans his excellent performance in last year’s Hell or High Water), so he’s right at home being the charming American spy with his his coiffed hair and silver tongue.

 

The thing about all of the positive elements of Wonder Woman, i.e. developed characters, good action scenes, and structured filmmaking should’ve been in the DCEU films for the past four years. If anything, Wonder Woman deadlifts the bar for what the DCEU movies need to be. Patty Jenkins has come in to practically right the ship of the DCEU and her filmmaking standards should be seriously noted. Wonder Woman is not only a reminder of how superhero movies should be made but a platform to build new ideas for superhero movies in the future. Wonder Woman is wholly unoriginally and has big flaws, but its spirit and skill is something that should be (pardon the phrase) marveled.

3/4 stars