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

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans

Guardians OF The Galaxy Vol. 2

It’s getting more and more difficult to imagine a time when sci-fi was seriously uncool. Not just slightly still uncool as it is to be obsessed with it, but in the it was something to be kept hidden from the world. It’s very ironic that of all the places that could have become synonymous with nerd culture, the stereotype that grew was in the basement. Even now as its exposed in the light of mainstream culture, with Hollywood’s biggest actors signing themselves up to play aliens and goblins and all sorts, it still retains some of its outsider, underground status. The biggest tentpole film of the year comes from an obscure run of Marvel comics which would have remained hidden in basements if it had not been resurrected.

Movies can often reflect the times you live in as well as the culture it came from. The ironic, sarcastic, self-deprecating and misaligned heroes of the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, Dir. James Gunn) are very much a reflection of today. It’s difficult to imagine Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the Joker bickering like children at the dinner table, clever remarks and funny one liners matched only by characters trying to explain their unspoken romance with references to Cheers, a live-action US sitcom from the 80s. We carry our cultures with us, and in 30 years a new generation will understand these techniques even less. And while its impossible to say that any one person was responsible for what was in this film, it’s important to note its mix and remix of timeless themes and time specific aspects (songs, jokes) is what makes this series work.

One of the brutal facts involved in this sequel’s judgement is the fact that people are already in on the jokes this time. A large unspoken part of why people talk about the law of diminishing returns when it comes to returning to a franchise or story is because the director can’t get away with as much as when he’s introducing the world for the first time. This is why the jokes maybe fall a little flatter this time, why as I sat in the cinema I could predict a few of the one-liners a couple of seconds before they land. Humour always lands hardest when the balanced scales between the audience and the director/joke-teller are weighted heavily towards the latter. When you’ve already got a whole film’s worth of previous material in your memory, the film has to stretch much harder to ring laughs out of an audience who have, to put it bluntly, seen it all before.

That’s not to completely let Vol. 2 completely off the hook though. A style needs to constantly evolve to remain fresh and interesting. The first time you hear a joke its funny. The second time round its less so. A couple more times and it becomes downright aggravating. Even being ironic gets annoying, and Vol. 2 suffers from a constant struggle of trying to undercut itself in an attempt to balance its humour with drama. Honestly on multiple occasions I was trying to decipher whether a scene was meant to be serious or a soon to be joke, and only with the help of its dramatic orchestral score (not its 70s/80s jams) can you actually orient yourself and figure out whether a scene’s meant to be funny or not. It’s sad I guess that the film is being crushed under the weight of its own previous success, much like Joss Whedon experienced with his Avengers Assemble (2012)/Avengers:Age of Ultron (2015) projects. Lightning can’t strike in the same place twice.

So what’s left? Well there’s a serious amount of spectacle going on here. This is really the highest level of money in filmmaking, and as a result no expense is spared. The world is as fully realised as can be, the relentlessly good CGI covering for any of the practical sets and worlds built, all of which no detail or expense is spared. Really the set pieces in this film remind me of video games and their boss fights, worlds which simply up until now would be too inhumanly expensive to even attempt recreating on film. It’s strength also lies in its ability to actually have colour, to make it more of a fantasy and pull itself away from the brown-grey colour palette of “gritty realism”. It’s world feels tangible at time, and as a result a lot of its more technical parts can rely on tried and tested classic methods to get its point across, when its production design is doing most of the work for it. You won’t find any experimental editing or cinematography here, but then if you’re looking for that you’ve come to the wrong film.

So while its humour takes a beating and its spectacle is only a backdrop, what holds it in place? Well I found it in its core, the same place which made the first one catalyse so well; it’s characters. The film really stretches its legs in this department, and manages to keep its spectacle playing second fiddle to the character’s and their relationships. It’s coincidental that in a film where it’s villain is literally a giant brain, its primary concern and what keeps it focused is what goes on in the heart. From its ramshackle family dynamics, ranging from the explosive to the intimate,both of which don’t feel mawkish or cringe at all, to the introduction of a character who is an empath (can feel other people’s feelings) Mantis (Pom Klementieff). In all of the monumental CGI spectacle, Vol. 2 never loses sight of the grounding it desperately needs in just what these character’s feel, about themselves and about each other.

The messed up ensemble family dynamic was and always has been Guardians strongest pillar to stand on, and credit to James Gunn for managing to stay mostly on that track. I always rated the first installment of this series as the best thing to come out of the MCU, since it’s the film that’s least concerned with the “super” part of superheroes. As this film shows, it’s difficult to care about gods unless they’re human. I mean, its shiny aspects of irony and nostalgia and flashy soundtrack may stick out more, but it’s the very human heart which keeps the film from completely disintegrating into a very colorful vibrant mess. It’s strange watching it, because the film itself seems pulled in so many different directions it can be disorienting and overwhelming at times; family drama, heady concept film, mindless popcorn fodder, cheesy 80s mining of nostalgia, operatic violence and low-brow brutish humour. It really is a reflection of the times we live, of remix culture, the obsession with the 80s (which I’m still not on board with). witty bantering and CGI dream worlds.

I’m not saying its a perfect film. But it’s a film that reminds me why I go to the cinema. It was a film I got lost in, both ironically and un-ironically. Even in its weaker moments, its something to enjoy, cinema which does its best to make its audience actually enjoy themselves. It’s power lies in its ability to not take itself too seriously, and while not everything lands, does it really matter? Like your family, not every moment with them is the best or worst in your world. The point is that they’re there around you, their presence and their personalities more than enough comfort in what would otherwise be the empty black void of space.

-Alex

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans