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‘Baby Driver’ Fires On More Cylinders Than You May Think

baby driver

Baby Driver is Edgar Wright’s latest love letter to familiar, yet beloved cinema tropes. Now that he’s explored zombies, cop spoofs, and alien invasions, the British writer/director turns his masterful eye toward car chases, bank heists, and even musicals.

The first ten minutes of Baby Driver do well to establish the main beats of the entire film, opening with a stunning car chase through the streets of Atlanta and ending with a scene where the criminals wax poetic on the quirky kid who made it all happen. Though these scenes are somewhat replicated over the course of the film, each one with its own tempo and style of course, none of what happens next feels nearly as formulaic as it probably should.

Baby (played by a stoic Ansel Elgort) is a professional getaway driver for a rotating cartel of manic criminals led by “Doc” (played by a fatherly Kevin Spacey). Due to a car accident from his childhood, Baby has tinnitus, which he drowns out with two earphones and a collection of iPods featuring his favorite music (or Wright’s favorites, we should say). For that reason, the action and even much of the downtime in Baby Driver is choreographed to a wide variety of catchy tunes. Think Guardians of the Galaxy with a bit more of a jukebox feel and the same mother/father issues.

baby driver

Unlike Star-Lord or maybe Burt Reynolds, Baby himself doesn’t talk much, instead opting for the music he chooses to lend context to every scene. It’s a fairly original method for us to get inside Baby’s head without the need of traditional prestige acting. This is fairly important in the second act, when the film turns to its romantic B-side and devotes a large chunk of time to better developing who Baby really is as he connects with Debora (played by an enigmatic Lily James). The relationship itself is equal parts La La Land and just about anything by Wes Anderson, which works well because of how the couple bonds over their love of music, as well as a balancing out of their core strengths as people.

For some viewers, this will be considered the weakest part of the film until it bounces back into the thrilling action, but it’s key to remember that the development in this act (and indeed, this is a five-act story instead of a three-act one, further leaning into the musical aspects) is crucial to setting the exact stakes for a more bombastic and staccato second half.

Baby Driver is a delight across the board and an inventive achievement in stunt-work, editing, frame-by-frame storytelling, and simple taste. It can be easy to resort to the typical “style over substance” complaint, which is usually earned. But here, style is a deliberate function of the plot, just as in Wright’s other triumphant films.

baby driver

On the surface, the story itself is quite simple, which feels more like a saving grace than otherwise. Despite its straightforward characterization, much of the film plays out differently than one might expect. Granted, you’ll see certain twists coming a mile away, but Wright knows this and instead employs unpredictable reactions to keep the story moving.

What pushes Baby Driver above the fold, truly, is the stealth humanization of Baby as a character. Wright pulls off a subtle trick with making the audience believe anything can happen with this character by frequently using his quiet strength to extract wild personalities from the various criminals who want to “get” Baby.

Many scenes allow seemingly cut-and-dry characters played by the likes of Jon Bernthal, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, and Jon Hamm to project their own personalities and motivations onto this getaway driver they don’t know what to do with. It happens enough times to lure the audience into doing the same thing, and by the end of Baby Driver, there’s a poignant question still lingering around who this character really is and what has made him tick all along.

Certain aspects of Baby Driver aren’t very original, but the movie itself truly is, and it’s a masterwork by one of the most talented directors and writers working today. It’s the kind of film made possible by the fact that auteur directors with the right vision can drift circles around the usual blockbusters.

Grade: A

Extra Credits:

  • I didn’t have time to get to it, but Jon Hamm is one of the film’s best surprises. He’s a fantastic mirror image of the Baby character who erupts into one of the year’s standout characters.
  • Despite the strong parallels to Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s important to point out that Wright has been wanting to make this movie since before he made Shaun of the Dead. In fact, the very premise of an action movie set to choreographed music was used in a music video he directed for Mint Royale years ago. Considering Wright’s relationship with Marvel (ending due to creative differences over Ant-Man), it seems somewhat likely that Guardians could have been directly inspired by an early version of Baby Driver.
  • Despite being a British director, Edgar Wright gets American culture better than many other American directors. This was also his first movie shot in the US.
  • Speaking of which, the choice to use Atlanta as a backdrop instead of LA gets to the root of why Baby Driver feels so remarkably fresh in spite of its clear connections to older films (they even filmed part of the movie in the same area as Fried Green Tomatoes, for example).
  • According to Wright, all of the car chase scenes used practical effects. All of them.
  • My favorite easter egg contains a slight spoiler, so I’ll just say that a very important “number” in the film refers to the release date of The Driver, which is perhaps this film’s most direct influence. Look out for 1978.

Thanks for reading this. To get updates on my theories, books, and giveaways, join my Mailing List.

Or just say hey on Twitter: @JonNegroni


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Review ‘Annie’ Is the Worst Movie I’ve Seen All Year.

And that’s saying something.

Let me preface this by saying that I was absolutely in love with the idea of a new Annie movie for this new generation. I was also glad that they were willing to take creative risks with the story, characters, and even original music.

Ironically, none of that is what makes the film the worst Annie movie of all time, as well as one of the worst movies I’ve seen in years.

annie movie

 

That said, the new story is inventive and even gutsy. I actually bought that it was “Annie” for the modern day. It was a little jarring to be taken out of the 1930s, but I stuck with it.

No, what brings this film down is the fact that someone decided to release a post-2005 Disney Channel Original Movie into theaters, masquerading as a tribute to one of the most celebrated stories of the 20th Century.

I’ll state outright that anyone who even remotely dislikes the post-High School Musical Disney Channel will be disgusted by this movie. For them (and me), it’s unwatchable.

annie movie

And even if the Disney Channel is your thing, I suspect you’ll still be put off by various other gaping missteps this movie takes, from countless potholes plotholes to unwittingly preachy left-wing messaging that felt incredibly out-of-place.

The major sins of Annie (and trust me, I hate to even call the movie Annie) include some of the things a movie based on a major broadway play should make priority #1. The first is the sound recording. None of the characters even look like they’re actually singing, and the recordings are so “polished,” there isn’t an ounce of immersion.

annie movie

The closest the film came to decent choreography and sound was during “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” but that was only thanks to the fact that you couldn’t really see the characters anyway. And other classic numbers are so poorly done, you’ll wonder why they even included music in this movie at all.

Jamie Foxx does what he can with this script, along with Rose Byrne and Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie herself. Strangely, these three main characters deliver fine performances, and it was their chemistry that made the trailers seem promising.

But the acting falls apart nearly everywhere else. Cameron Diaz is clearly phoning it in as the persistently drunk Ms. Hannigan, and her overacting makes me think she was actually wasted on set.

annie movie

And the children from the orphanage couldn’t deliver a single believable line, despite the fact that countless other young (and competent) actors would be chomping at the bit for a role in Annie. Where were they during auditions?

None of the humor worked for me (yes, they save the few funny lines for the trailer), and as I mentioned earlier, the plot holes are too huge to ignore, no matter how old you are.

SPOILER WARNING (though, it’s related to pretty much every other Annie plot):

annie movie

One of the biggest plot holes of the movie left me with my jaw so wide, I couldn’t write this without pointing it out. Toward the end of the movie, Annie gets kidnapped by two people claiming to be her parents.

We clearly see her leave her room with her phone on her, but when she’s later locked in the car with her kidnappers, she doesn’t use the phone to call for help. We just don’t see the phone at all (the phones in this movie, by the way, look bizarre to the point where I feel compelled to bring up how strange they look).

Now Jamie Foxx plays the CEO of a cell phone company, and we find out early in the movie (by the chauffeur of all people) that the company spies on everyone. You know, like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight.

annie movie

But when they try to use this technology to find Annie, they just give up and decide to use recent pictures of her posted on Instagram and Twitter.

Guys, can I just say that I am sick and tired of these movies made by people who try way too hard to incorporate modern technological phenomenon in their movies. It’s to the point where “going viral” is the plot device of almost every single movie since The Social Network, including objectively good movies like Birdman.

Bottom line: it’s lazy. And incredibly overused.

Another gaping plot hole is that the kids in Annie’s orphanage know that Ms. Hannigan is auditioning people to pretend to be Annie’s parents. We see them admitting people into the orphanage for tryouts as they practice their lines. These are Annie’s closest friends, and they don’t say a word to anyone about it.

annie movie

I could go on, but I think you get my point. It’s very rare that a movie infuriates me to this level. I can shrug off a bad movie. They happen. But when you mess with a legacy like Annie, which has legions of fans of all ages, and ruin it for an entire generation, you do something cinematically unforgivable.

This is saying something, but Annie (2014) is so terrible, I’m actually glad that it strays so much from the original Annie. At least this way, fewer people will confuse the two.

My advice? You’re better off watching the TV movie version from 1999.

Review: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’

As I sat down to write this review, I quickly remembered that I also reviewed the first Amazing Spider-Man on this site two years ago, and it’s fascinating to me how little I had to say about it.

Seriously, I basically came to the conclusion that it’s barely worth watching on the basis that it has some decent effects and a mediocre story that may pay off in the long-run.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

Of course, I (along with most of the Spider-Man fandom) was sorely disappointed with several directions Sony took with the origin story, especially when it came to Ben Parker’s death. I understood then and now that this would be underwhelming for moviegoers like me who are still fondly remembering the original Spider-Man in 2002.

Two years and one two-hour movie later, we have The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is undoubtedly a bigger, better version of the movie that came before it. Everything about this sequel tries incredibly hard to outdo the original, from the acting and character development to the carefully crafted action scenes.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

 

Even the soundtrack seems to have more thought put into it this time (with dubstep tracks being carefully placed only in sequences that feature the film’s central villain: Jamie Foxx’s Electro)

In the months leading up to this film’s release, I was obsessed with staying up-to-date with all of the featurettes, promos, interviews and trailers that did their darndest to convince us that they’d fix what went wrong with the original (which still made them plenty of money).

The first thing to note, and the film’s biggest improvement, is that Sony at least has a powerful agenda behind this film aside from their obligation to make a Spider-Man movie before their contract to the character’s rights fall back to Marvel (which most of us want to happen, ironically).

The first film felt forced, basically, because we knew Sony was only doing it to hang on to their film rights. But this time around, there’s more to Sony’s madness. Thanks to Marvels grand Avengers experiment, Sony is in the business of franchise-building, and they’re now setting up a richer universe that can branch off into numerous spin-offs, which include a film devoted to both Venom and the Sinister Six.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

So that’s one point for the movie so far. There’s something to it this time.

But is the movie any good?

Yes. In fact, I’m going to say it’s great.

I know, I know. The consensus so far among Spider-Man fanatics like myself has been that this sequel is essentially an abomination. Bob Chipman, one of my favorite movie critics, nearly quit reviewing movies out of frustration over this film.

But I politely disagree with Chipman and many other naysayers, and here’s why.

First, they finally got the costume right. I was pretty indifferent to the Sam Raimi costume version, despite its toned down color and melancholic feel. But The Amazing Spider-Man proved that you can definitely mess up his costume, with laughable blinking lights and a look that doesn’t look at all like the Spider-Man we’ve gotten to love over the better half of the last century.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

This time around, however, the costume is pretty much perfect, capturing the look of Spider-Man in a way that pays homage to the original without looking dated.

Next, the action scenes and special effects were fantastic, and I applaud Dave Schaub for his hard work and dedication to crafting a movie that lets Spider-Man be the web slinging daredevil he is, stealing every scene he’s in when donning the costume.

(I even wrote a piece on how Schaub and his team set out to nail the physics of web slinging in this awesome interview you can read here.)

Adding to the action was a devotion to revealing what I call little moments throughout the story. Yes, you had big themes and character plots controlling the drive of the story, but that didn’t prevent director Marc Webb from giving Spider-Man some time to just be a hero. For the first time since Spider-Man 2, audiences were allowed to see Spider-Man foil petty crimes in creative ways, without the plot keeping him too busy.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

These moments consisted of Spidey’s varied conversations with the citizens he would save, along with entire scenes devoted to heroic crime fighting that didn’t even contribute heavily to the plot. I think that some critics were possibly annoyed at these little moments because they might seem pointless to some, but appreciated the care put into differentiating Spider-Man from his real identity, Peter Parker.

Spider-Man is a superhero who is always cracking jokes and keeping things light because he has a mask on. Peter Parker is less confident and a little more nerdy, and that’s a theme that is far more faithful here to the comics.

And it made the film fun. I found myself laughing out loud during the film many times, and kudos to Garfield for letting himself over-act for this role, because it definitely worked.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

There were two main villains in this film: Max Dillon (AKA Electro) and Harry Osborn (AKA Green Goblin). My biggest complaint for this film lies in how they handled these two, both as characters and how they fit into the plot.

To be fair, I liked both of these villains early on, especially Max Dillon’s incredibly awkward transition from bumbling electrician to full-on psychopath. But as the film trudged along, we lost what made Dillon interesting as he became a ruthless villain. In other words, his character arc was a bit clumsy.

Dane DeHaan’s take on Green Goblin committed the same sins, and  I hate how they handled the origin of this villain. I spent the entire film hoping that we’d find out that Harry’s father, Norman Osborn, would end up being the “real” Goblin, using his son as a pawn, but no such twist came to fruition.

amazing spider-man 2 worth watching

The film had a lot of great moments, but it was a bit lopsided, as it would spend huge chunks focusing on one of its many story threads. They handled the progression of Gwen and Peter’s story quite well, at the very least, and I was satisfied with how the film answered the question of what happened to Peter’s parents.

Still, the pacing just felt a bit off and the film could have used some strategic trimming. It was a bit long, but I certainly didn’t look at my watch.

I’d like to talk more on how I felt about the film toward the third act, which was its strongest (at least in regards to the last 15-20 minutes). But I’ll leave you with this:

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is worth watching. It’s a well-made film that presents a decent take on the webhead, unless you’re firmly against Sony’s new version already. My advice is to just go with the flow and let yourself be amazed by the plenty of good things this sequel has to offer.

Thanks for Reading! You can subscribe to this blog by email via the prompt on the sidebar. Otherwise, be sure to stay connected with me on Twitter (@JonNegroni). I’ll follow you back if you say something witty and awesome.

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