Baby Driver – Music/Motion

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It’s much harder to make an action film today. Not only might you have to compete with the tectonic plates of the Earth being upturned by whatever superhero/robot/monster/weird mix of three in a visual rain of CGI, but you also have to deal with audiences who are far more cynical and far more media literate than ever before. You can’t get away with half of the culturally offensive stereotypes, cheap sexual pandering and relentless bullet violence that filled the action film genre from its more recent generations. To make action films now, you either have to have a lot of money or you have to be smart.

Edgar Wright managed to get both, and came out with one of the most thrilling action films in a long time.


Baby Driver (2017, Dir. Edgar Wright) is the story of a getaway driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort) who is just “one last job” from getting out of his profession, being able to leave behind the life of high-speed car chases and high-risk, high-stakes bank robberies. He’s got a heart of gold, but a head tainted with the mud of the criminal underworld. He’s unwilling to continue, and unwilling to risk getting out.  In the mix of all this lays a girl he falls in love with, Debora (Lily James), his deaf adoptive father Joseph (CJ Jones), the cast of dangerous criminals he pulls jobs with (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González) and finally his employer/Machiavellian father figure Doc (Kevin Spacey). With all those elements in the pot boiling, it’s only a matter of time before the tension spills out into explosions.

Not literal explosions though. In fact I’m pretty sure only one actual explosion occurs, a visual note to mark off the film’s nail-biting climax. A pretty low number for a modern-day action film, but what it’s replaced by is unbelievably tight, kinetic car chases and character conflicts. The film draws from that incredible 70s tradition of tense, expertly framed sequences of drawn out games of traffic cat and mouse, as Baby spends most of the film swerving and skidding various cars through the sunlit streets of Atlanta, and goddamn are these well shot. They pulse with energy and keep the action focused into such an intense quality, the film races by. Talk of him meeting with George Miller surfaced awhile ago, and it’s not hard to see the DNA of that specific brand of visceral car chase energy.

When the film is not wrapped up with doing it’s fierce physical car chases, it’s embroiled in Baby’s life. There’s no filler to him, and as Guillermo Del Toro described it recently, it’s a fable. It’s world isn’t a reality close to ours, filled with vibrant and bold colours and archetypes rather than complex three-dimensional characters. But doing this isolates the film’s purity, as these larger than life symbols constantly negotiate each other, some like Baby who do it carefully and earnestly, others like Bats (Jamie Foxx) who negotiate that world with extreme violence. The characters clash with the world, and they clash with each other, and they clash with themselves. Wright’s script really stuns in its expert handling of meshing these characters together, and making sure they stay believable. Especially for a writer-director so renowned for his irony and comedy, it’s impressive to see the restraint on show to keep this film serious and simple. It’s not trying to take the piss out of itself, it really is an action film with great characters.

Of course, its technical choices ripple across the whole of the film’s surface and it would be a disservice not to mention them. First and foremost is its sound, both its sound mixing and soundtrack. The soundtrack is the shining jewel in the film’s crown, weaved impeccably well through Baby listening to his iPod in near constant fashion throughout the entire film. The music video generation bleeds through here, as the editing and even the gunshots on-screen are perfectly synced to keep in time with the music. This is that ballet of violence that lies in the same DNA as Hard Boiled (1992, Dir. John Woo), that choreography of action into an order which is just so exhilarating to watch.

You could have all these elements, the great characters and exhilarating soundtrack with the expertly filmed car chase sequences, and you could still end up with a film getting out of control, still end up with a film that doesn’t work and falls apart. It takes the work of a great director to unify individual great elements. Wright does that, just by making sure the audience stand alongside Baby. He cares for his adoptive father. He lost his parents in an accident he didn’t cause. He’s not superhumanly confident or a badass untroubled by anything with only a catchphrase. There’s moments of awkwardness, of vulnerability, of joy and sadness and anger and frustration. He’s a very human protagonist, one who tries to do the right thing and if he can’t do that at least the best thing. And his obsessive, nerdy traits stand alongside his cool chic, his sunglasses and clothes. Wright is in the tradition of a long line directors who are movie nerds, and the key word in there is nerd. It’s a film made by a human, one who obsessively loves the medium he works in. It only makes sense that Baby would share that same obsessive love.

People move in the world of Baby Driver. People sing (or rather sing-a-long) and dance and love and fight and kill and do everything in between. It’s just so good to see that frenetic human motion scored by such good music.

Oh yeah, and they drive a lot.

-Alex

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Baby Driver – Music/Motion

Free Fire: On All Cylinders

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Ben Wheatley keeps making films that I would like to make. His last outing, High Rise (2015) was an adaptation of JG Ballard’s infamous novella, one which I was morbidly enamored with after reading it and have since harbored a secret wish to adapt it to the screen, if I ever was in a position to do that. Well I can cross that one off, and now Mr. Wheatley has grabbed the crime film by the lapels and thrown it back into the limelight, in this tale of a gun deal gone wrong, taking away another cinematic desire of mine.

To be honest I’d probably be upset if he wasn’t doing it so goddamn well.

Free Fire is a film about scoundrels.  All the insects hiding on the underbelly of society, some prettier than others, some who prefer beard oil, but all of them hiding in the dark surfaces underneath the rocks. It’s characters spill all over each other, violently clashing and warring for their egos, and then for their lives. The whole film becomes something of a Chinese spinning plate act, as characters drag themselves around the floor of this abandoned warehouse, all of them slowly bleeding out from various wounds inflicted by the others (when most of them can’t hit anything anyway because shooting people is much harder than most Hollywood films portray). We bear witness as their chances and efforts to actually get out alive grow slimmer and dimmer, and we instead settle into a kind of cathartic rhythm of watching how they perish, and taking solace, joy, sadness and all the rest in between.

And what a cast of characters who pull themselves through it. Ben Wheatley’s ability to draw out the absurd in all of these performers, in Sharlto Copley’s lovable and irritating weapons dealer, Michael Smiley (a Ben Wheatley staple) deadpan old “Grandpa”, Armie Hammer’s smarmy oil slick demeanour, Sam Riley’s laughable smackhead and the list goes on with each actor involved leaving their mark in a way which makes you remember them. Special attention must be given to Brie Larson (the reasons are obvious once you’ve seen the film) and to Noah Taylor because well I just love Noah Taylor.

Honestly though this whole essay could be devoted to just a discussion on the richness and balletic complexity of the characters and their interplay throughout the film, but that would be doing a great disservice to the other elements at play here. The cinematography of Laurie Rose for example, Wheatley’s long time collaborator, helps to bring such a visceral intensity to the proceedings, as the camera keeps itself in the position of the players, low to the ground and confused. Constantly bouncing back and forth around the factory setting, it helps to set up a constant thread of anticipation and tension as you can never quite work out exactly where everyone is or how close they are to each other.

Not just that, but the colour scheme of the film, both in terms of its lighting and in terms of its costume design is gorgeous, this rich gold permeating throughout (even referenced in terms of “the golden hour and a half”, the time period in which medical treatment will likely prevent your death, which is also conveniently this films running time) while the costumes themselves are drenched in 70s style, open shirts and pastel colours abound. It’s just such a gorgeously designed world,  it’s vibrancy there to be looked at rather than just glazed over.

Obviously with a film so skeletal in comparison with some of its action film counterparts of today, there’s not much room for hiding, and if the film’s pace had slacked in any way, the whole ballet would have crashed to the ground. Thankfully this never occurs, mainly due to a clear script and some great manipulations in the editing and the sound design. In terms of its script (which I’d love to read mainly because the amount of “x shoots at y, y shoots at z, ad infinitum”) it’s a lot of pure cinema, just pure action, and Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump did a job which he explains in this clip as to how it feels so tight:

As with the editing and sound design, the pace is incredibly well executed, ebbing and flowing not necessarily where you would expect it, but allowing the time for the film to breathe in between its gasping for air shootouts. Really, the editing is the linchpin in a film like this and what a magnificent linchpin it is. Finally the sound design also must be extolled, the gunfire becoming this great cacophony of explosive echoes which are at points near deafening, only punctuated by elements of freeform jazz and a great use of John Denver.

Free Fire is not the most important film ever made, and that’s good because it’s not trying to be. All its trying to be is a good, well crafted film. It’s a film which you can really get lost in, because there’s nothing really outside of its own internal world. And it’s a film which owes its inspirations to other films, from silent cinema to the gangster flicks it evokes. I just think its great cinema, and beyond that, that’s not for me to say.

-Alex

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Free Fire: On All Cylinders