Baby Driver


Baby and Debora want their Big Mac meals right NOW!!!

(2017) Action Comedy (TriStar) Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Elza Gonzalez, Micah Howard, Morgan Brown, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Morse Diggs, Flea, CJ Jones, Paul Williams, Big Boi, Killer Mike, Lance Palmer, Sky Ferreira, Lanny Joon, Hudson Meek, Brogan Hall, Richard Marcos Taylor, Viviana Chavez, Hal Whiteside, Brigitte Kali. Directed by Edgar Wright

 

This has been a really good year for quirky action movies and this one is one of the best of the year. British director Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) channels Tarantino through a Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack filter and turns in an absolute gem.

Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver par excellence. Due to a childhood accident, he suffers from tinnitus – a ringing of the ear that can sometimes be distracting. To combat this, he wears an iPod and ear buds to drown out the white noise with classic rock and roll from such diverse groups as The Damned, Golden Earring, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and T-Rex.

He works for a criminal named Doc (Spacey) who robs banks, although he doesn’t actually do the robbing himself; he puts together the master pan and assembles the crews. The only common denominator is Baby who he considers his “good luck charm” and who besides owes Doc a debt which he pays for with each job. Baby has one more job to go before the debt is paid but Doc doesn’t really want to let him go.

The trouble is from Doc’s standpoint is that Baby has found himself a girlfriend, Debora (James) who waitresses at the diner he frequents. The two are eager to get the heck out of Dodge (or at least Atlanta) and drive west and never stop but Doc has Baby sucked in. Still, Baby has his own plans and he might just be able to outthink the brilliant Doc if he gets a few breaks going his way.

The action sequences which were done practically and without CGI are flat-out amazing. Some of the best car chase sequences since Bullitt populate this film. The backstory and mythology of the piece is riveting and Wright populates this world with a cast of characters that would do the aforementioned Tarantino proud. The dialogue as you would expect from an Edgar Wright film is smart and occasionally brilliant.

Elgort who has not impressed me particularly to this point does so here. He’s done a lot of teen heartthrob films and he is completely wasted in them; this is the kind of movie he was born to do and he makes the most of it. The rest of the cast is uniformly at the top of their games, with Hamm and Foxx particularly noteworthy.

Since allegations of sexual misconduct came out against Spacey a few weeks ago, there are likely many who will want to boycott the film because of his presence in it and yes, he plays a very critical role and takes up a good deal of screen time. I won’t begin to excuse his performance or advise for or against boycotting this film because of it but I will say that while he shows off the best of his abilities here, I can understand why people will want to give this film a miss because of his presence. Again, I won’t judge anyone’s moral compass other than to say that the rest of the cast and crew who made this one of the year’s best movies may deserve your support in this case but again, it is understandable if you choose to withhold it. Nevertheless this is one of the year’s best films.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are second to none. Elgort gives the best performance of his career to date and has real chemistry with James. The backstory is not only credible but entertaining. The soundtrack is spot on.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s quite possible that the film is too hip for its own good. The presence of the disgraced Spacey may make it a moral choice whether to support this film or not.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: CJ Jones, who plays Joseph (a deaf character) is himself deaf.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mr. Roosevelt

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Pompeii


Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland's imperial ass.

Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland’s imperial ass.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (TriStar) Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Jessica Lucas, Sasha Roiz, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Dylan Schombing, Rebecca Eady, Maxime Savana, Ron Kennell, Tom Bishop Sr., Jean-Francois Lachapelle, Jean Frenette, Dalmar Abuzeid, Melantha Blackthorne. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

There’s an old saying that “man proposes, God disposes” and if by God you mean a volcano then you have a point. The best-laid plans of mice and men do not stand well before an erupting Mt. Vesuvius.

Milo (Harrington) is a gladiator. He wasn’t always a gladiator – as a young boy (Schombing), he was the only survivor of a Celtic Horse Clan that was wiped out in rebellion against Rome by the Centurion Corvus (Sutherland) and his right hand swordsman Proculus (Roiz).  He only survived by playing dead but not before witnessing the butchering of his mother (Eady) and father (Lachapelle). He was discovered by slavers and trained as a gladiator.

As a gladiator in the British isles he soon became known for his speed and his skills and as a young man was virtually unbeatable. Recognizing that he was far too skilled for the hinterlands, it was decided that Milo be taken to Pompeii to see how he fares. Pompeii is just a hop, skip and a jump from the big time in Rome.

Pompeii, a seaside resort town, is having some issues of its own. Much of it is dilapidated and aging and leading citizen Severus (Harris) is eager to rebuild much of it, attracting more tourism. In particular the arena is obsolete and cannot accommodate the extremely popular chariot races, so his grand plan includes the construction of a new arena. He is hopeful that the new emperor will invest but instead he gets Corvus.

Corvus however has an agenda of his own and it involves Severus’ daughter Cassia (Browning). She had spent a year in Rome but sickened by the corruption she saw there, had returned home to her father and mother Aurelia (Moss). However, her principle reason for leaving had been the dogged and unwanted pursuit by Corvus who now means to use her as leverage against her father.

In the meantime however a chance roadside meeting had led Cassia and Milo to meet. Sparks flew immediately, an event not unnoticed by Ariadne (Lucas), Cassia’s servant. However, Milo has more to worry about – he is set to meet Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion gladiator who needs one more win to earn his freedom. The two end up respecting one another and becoming unlikely allies. However, Vesuvius is rumbling, the clock is ticking and all Hell is about to be unleashed on the city that sleeps at its base.

Anderson is no stranger to effects movies with budgets that are far from extravagant as a veteran of the Resident Evil series. Like several of those movies, the CGI run hot and cold with in the case of Pompeii some of the green screen effects of the city stretching off in the distance and the mountain rising ominously in the distance look exactly like green screen effects. Nonetheless during the sequences in which the mountain is erupting in full fury and visiting its wrath upon the city below, the effects can be breathtaking – at times it seems like the ash floating down from the sky are going to nestle into your lap. Although I saw the standard version, friends and colleagues who have seen the 3D version have asserted that it is one of the best in that department.

Harrington, best known as the Stark bastard Jon Snow in the Game of Thrones HBO series, bulked up considerably for the role and while not having a whole lot of dialogue (Milo is depicted as being a brooding, unfriendly sort), nonetheless shows great promise as at least an action film leading man and maybe for other types of roles in the future as well. However, the wispy facial hair has to go – it makes him look like a high school junior.

The doe-eyed Browning never really seems to grasp what her character is supposed to be; at times she is a strong, Roman-style feminist who has more cojones than her milksop father. At other times she is a helpless damsel in distress. I don’t think this is a particular problem with Browning so much as a problem with the writing. I suspect that the character would have been strong throughout but the powers that be might have taken a hand in it.

Sutherland chews the scenery as the corrupt and vicious Corvus but has a good time doing it (although I can’t help thinking what Jack Bauer would have done in a season of 24 set in Pompeii). Yeah, he’s over-the-top but why the hell not? The whole city is about to be buried under tons of lava and ash after all so why not make a mark while there’s still a mark to be made. His arrogant patrician muscle Proculus, portrayed by Roiz who some may know better as Grimm‘s Captain Renard makes an ideal foil. Finally Akinnuoye-Agbaje is fine in what is essentially the same role played by Djimon Hounsou in Gladiator which is a much superior film.

Much of the reason this doesn’t measure up is that the story is so ludicrous and takes liberties with simple common sense. Why would anyone want to piss off a trained killer as happens repeatedly throughout the film? Historical evidence shows us that ancient Romans tread carefully around gladiators simply because as slaves who had only death to look forward to they had nothing to lose if they killed a tormentor. Quite the opposite, gladiators were treated with respect and honor.

Still, if one forgives the movie its pedestrian and predictable plot, the effects and action are certainly worthwhile. It’s the portions in between these action and special effects sequences that are often excruciating and leave one longing for a pyroclastic cloud  to come your way.

REASONS TO GO: Harrington a promising leading man. Some nifty disaster effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Hokey story. Some of the green screen effects are pretty poor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Gladiator battle-type violence, some of it bloody as well as disaster-related action – people getting crushed by falling masonry and so on. There is also some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrington underwent a regimen to attain the absolutely ripped body of Milo by going on a 3000 calorie diet for five weeks in what he called his “bulking” regimen. He cut back on this and went on a four week “cutting” regimen with intense training. During this time he went to the gym three times a day six days a week, developing body dysmorphia – extreme anxiety about the appearance of one’s body – forcing his trainer to step in and reign in the regimen. However, Harrington was very pleased with the overall results and proclaimed himself in the best shape of his life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Volcano

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Past

Cadillac Records


Adrian Brody smirks after winning a bet with Jeffrey Wright.

Adrian Brody smirks after winning a bet with Jeffrey Wright.

(TriStar) Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Beyonce Knowles, Gabrielle Union, Cedric the Entertainer, Columbus Short, Emmanuelle Chriqui. Directed by Darnell Martin

Once in a great while, fortune and talent come together in a great confluence that allows the most unlikely of people to join together to become legends.

Leonard Chess (Brody), a Polish émigré to Chicago, has grand ambitions. Hoping to marry the love of his life Revetta (Chriqui), he opens a bar on the predominantly African-American South Side of Chicago. Hoping to draw in the local crowd, he hires local talent to play his stage. One of the first guys he finds is a gifted guitarist who goes by the name of Muddy Waters (Wright).

Muddy had been a Mississippi sharecropper before being “discovered” by Smithsonian-Folkways recording archivists, and being prompted to move to Chicago to play the Blues. His wife Geneva (Union) puts up with the rough living conditions and the late nights, turning a blind eye to his many infidelities.

So impressive is Muddy’s prowess that Chess buys a recording studio and founds a recording company he names after himself. However, Muddy’s career really goes into overdrive when he finds gifted harmonica player Little Walter (Short). Walter has a unique style that employs electric amplification, something only just coming into style back then. However, his abrasive personality and drinking problem leads him to be fired from Muddy’s band, although they still record together. Walter’s solo career, however, takes off on its own.

With songwriter/engineer Willie Dixon (Cedric) in the house, Chess has assembled a winning team which only gets better with the arrival of Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and the great Chuck Berry (Mos Def). Berry’s unique blend of blues, country and r&b creates a bastard child that can only be labeled “rock and roll.” His music begins to cross over lines to white audiences and becomes Chess Records’ most successful artist.

Add into this mix the incredibly talented (and incredibly troubled) Etta James (Knowles) and you have a recipe for game-changing music, as well as for ego-driven conflicts. As the ‘60s dawn and musical tastes begin to change, the influence of the Chess artists becomes apparent even as their record sales begin to dwindle. Not everybody, sadly, will make it out alive.

Martin has a cinematic love letter to an era and to a record label in particular. Music underwent a profound change in the 1950s, and Chess and Sun Records were both at the forefront of that change – the birth of rock and roll out of country (Sun Records with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) and the blues (Chess Records). Only Motown Records in the ‘60s would have the same kind of effect on the musical landscape that these two labels did.

Leonard Chess actually co-founded the label with his brother Phillip, who for some odd reason is not even mentioned here. In any case, Brody gives a solid performance as the label head, who gave his artists Cadillacs when they completed their first record, but who may have played fast and loose with royalty payments.

Knowles, who has shown some real acting skills in Dreamgirls and Austin Powers: Goldmember, continues to impress with a powerful portrayal as Etta James. She captures the artists’ outer bravura as well as her inner fears and demons. Short, similarly, captures the larger-than-life aspects of an artist who burned brightly and was snuffed out all too soon.

It’s a shame that in a movie about Chess Records, little of the original music from these artists was used. Instead, the producers chose to have the songs re-recorded (Knowles does her own vocals on James’ hits ”At Last” and “I’d Rather Be Blind”), mostly by the actors playing the artists. While it’s admirable that the actors did their own singing, I’d rather have heard the original versions by Muddy Waters, Etta James and Chuck Berry.

The filmmakers obviously have a reverence for Chess Records and its legacy. They gathered a strong cast and gave them some strong material to work with. This is a movie that helps illustrate the development of modern music, which is of more than passing interest to anyone who loves it. While the movie didn’t fare particularly well on its theatrical run, it is more than worth checking out. Yes, it’s an imperfect glimpse into the past but ultimately, a satisfying tribute to a label and the people on it who, together, changed music forever.

WHY RENT THIS: The story of Chess Records is an important historical event in the history of modern music and the movie covers it respectfully. Solid performances from an impressive cast, especially Knowles and Short.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie plays a little fast and loose with the facts, and oddly, doesn’t use the music from the actual performers and instead recreates these iconic songs with the actors lending their voices.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sex and sexual situations, as well as drug use and some racially-motivated violence. Not for small fries.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Leonard Chess was originally to have been played by Matt Dillon, but he had to bow up due to scheduling conflicts. Adrien Brody wound up taking the part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes an interactive playlist maker that allows you to create and share playlists of the songs in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Zombieland