Baby Driver (2017) review: Car Car Land*

Film

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Director: Edgar Wright Writer: Edgar Wright Stars: Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm 

*I thought of this pun during the film, then was disappointed to discover Edgar Wright had already used it for an event he curated at the BFI. GREAT MINDS is what I say. It’s not stealing. Really.

Synopsis: “A talented, young getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) relies on the beat of his personal soundtrack to be the best in the game. But after being coerced into working for a crime boss (Kevin Spacey), he must face the music when a doomed heist threatens his life, love and freedom.”

Sometimes you go into a cinema showing with your expectations so high you inwardly know you’re sabotaging what you’re about to watch. I LOVE Edgar Wright. Everything he has done to date has been funny, clever, witty and all with an unmistakably Edgar Wright feel.  You can spot his hyper-pop, music-loving, rapid-fire style a mile off, and that’s not an easy feat. He’s also read my blog, so that clearly means he’s a man of taste.

Here comes the but… I found myself mildly disappointed in Baby Driver. The reviews from friends who’d seen previews were glowing. In a they’d-bought-the-soundtrack-and-were-champing-at-the-bit-to-see-it-a-second-time kind of glowing. In a summer that has so far has given us stinkers like Pirates 5 (I can’t even be bothered to check if that’s the correct  number, that’s how much I care about the Pirates of the Caribbean films). Transformers: The Last Knight and The Mummy reboot, it seemed no Rotten Tomatoes score would edge over 30%. Baby Driver appeared like ray of light beaming down on the cinematic universe sewage. An original film with a great soundtrack, great cast and director with a lot to prove.

The opening 20 minutes are stunning. From the tinnitus that accompanies the studio logo and first few frames, to the carefully choreographed ballet of the opening heist, to Baby grabbing a coffee and singing along while the lyrics play out in graffiti and signs on the street behind him, this is an all-time great start to a film. Every step, every shot, every extra conveys something. It’s clever, it’s cool and it filled me with joy. I was fully prepared for Baby Driver to instantly go into my top ten films of all time. However it just didn’t quite keep up that glorious early pace.

We start the film firmly in Baby’s world, witnessing events from his point of view, from the glorious heist set to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s ‘Bellbottoms’ (if you don’t own it already you should check out Orange) to the charming scene with his foster father Joseph demanding his peanut butter be spread right to the edges.

By the time Baby has witnessed the first on-screen death (there have been so many previous heists the assumption is this isn’t the first one there has been) the pace starts to slow. We start seeing how the world sees Baby and the initial joy starts to fade. No longer do we have Baby singing and dancing, instead we’re given his passive facade behind shades, looking increasingly moody and uncomfortable with the situation he has become trapped in, leading to a dramatic and tense conclusion.

The music and the visuals are so much fun, and the film really could have been dubbed ‘Car Car Land’ (see above for credit to Edgar Wright) for it’s marriage of car chases and classic musical elements, but it was the narrative which let it down a little for me.

The romance between Baby and Debora (Lily James) is a wonderful hybrid of John Hughes and Quentin Tarantino. Baby’s relationship with Joseph (CJ Jones) is sweet and touching. There is something about his interactions with the criminal gang of Doc (Kevin Spacey on fine Spacey-esque form) which just didn’t quite ring true.

The female characters were also somewhat underwritten. Debora is very charming, but she very much falls into the good old manic pixie dream girl trope, and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez) could be summed up as ‘hot drug-addict, lapdancer and wife’. Some of the decisions the characters make also seem to be somewhat pulled out of a hat. But then I guess heist films aren’t subtle, so maybe I am asking too much for the characters to be given nuance or subtlety when so much of the film is so very loud, and extended backstories would undoubtedly have slowed the pace.

Of special note is the fact that Jon Hamm somehow remains attractive in the role of Buddy, Darling’s husband, despite the dodgy haircut and neck tattoos. He also seems to be having the time of his life playing the role, which makes it a joy to watch.

Baby Driver is a fun, fast-paced, popcorn flick that shows Edgar Wright is a director at the height of his game (and clearly has a kick-ass music collection), the narrative just tends to rely a little too heavily on familiar tropes when it could have been as original and exiting as the audio and visuals.

8 out of 10

 

 

I, Daniel Blake (2016) review: a passionate and gut-wrenching look at modern Britain

Film

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Director: Ken Loach   Writer: Paul Laverty (screenplay)

Stars: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy

Ken Loach has long been a fearsome and tireless campaigner for political change, giving a voice to those in society who might otherwise be overlooked, through films which merge drama and reality. When ‘I, Daniel Blake’ won the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film Loach took the opportunity to thank the Academy for endorsing the truth of the film “which hundreds and thousands of people in this country know, that the most vulnerable and poorest are treated by the Government with a callous brutality that is disgraceful”.  ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is the best kind of cinema, one that entertains but that could also enact social change.

Written by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty (The Wind that Shake the Barley, My Name is Joe), I, Daniel Blake focuses on the life of 59 year old Daniel. Daniel is a carpenter, living in Newcastle, who has recently had a series of heart problems that have meant his doctors have ordered him to stay off work. Having worked in manual labour his whole life Daniel find the transition difficult and finds himself having to rely on help from the State to see him through. The film follows Daniel in his battle to negotiate the welfare system and keep himself going.

Along his journey he meets up with Katie (Hayley Squires) a single mother to 2 children, who has had to move out of London when the benefit caps meant they could no longer afford to live anywhere other than a one bedroom homeless hostel. Wanting some space and freedom for her family (with her son displaying some worrying behaviours) she has taken the plunge and moved away from everything she knows to give her son and daughter a better quality of life. Now desperate to be able to go back to college Katie tries to keep up appearances for her children as her life slowly unravels.

Both Daniel and Katie find themselves at the mercy of a benefits system which seeks to meet arbitrary sanctions targets, driving them both beyond poverty and desperation and into very dark territory.  They form a kind of surrogate family and help support each other in their darkest times.

The film looks at the benefit system through the lens of a country which has been brain-washed by a media intent on propagating the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor and is unflinching in it’s portrayal of a system set up solely around numbers and absent of humanity.

As one of those hundreds and thousands of people who has seen the cruelty of the benefits system I can also testify to Loach’s truth here. I have seen first-hand the arbitrary decisions that are made in order to fulfil an imaginary quota of ‘undeserving’ poor which in turn leads to callous abandonment of those in our society who are the most vulnerable. The tale told here is not one that has been exaggerated for dramatic purpose; this is happening every day.

However, if politics isn’t your thing, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a masterful piece of film-making, as you would expect from someone of Loach’s standing. Despite the subject matter it never lectures, allowing the viewer to be caught up in the story at hand. It manages to balance warmth, humour and hope against the bleakest of backdrops and makes you truly care about Daniel, Katie and all those who have found themselves either trapped in or cast out by the system.

A rare mix of the passionate and human, the gut-wrenching and the comedic, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is an absolute must see and one of the most important films of recent years.

9.5 out of 10

Nocturnal Animals (2016) review: Stylish modern noir

Film

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Director:Tom Ford Writers: Tom Ford (screenplay), Austin Wright (novel) Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon

It’s hard to believe that ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is only the second directorial outing for fashion designer Tom Ford, seemingly already establishing himself as somewhat of an auteur. Producing, directing and writing the screenplay, Ford’s ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a dark, hallucinatory noir thriller which has already had a successful festival run, picking up the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year.

Amy Adams is Susan, a rich LA art gallery owner with a magnificent house overlooking the glittering city, with an army of attentive staff and a handsome, successful husband, Walter (Armie Hammer). All is not well in Susan’s life however as she is finding herself increasingly dissatisfied with her life of material excess, and the absence of her travelling husband plays on her mind. As she wrestles with her own feelings of being trapped in a gilded cage, and battling with constant insomnia, a manuscript arrives at her door, from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The book is entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ and has a letter accompanying it explaining that Edward would like Susan to be the first to read it, and has dedicated it to her. What follows is a masterful intertwining of Susan’s own struggles with her dissatisfaction, and insights into the book itself, interpreted through Susan’s own sleep-starved brain. The story that Edward presents to Susan is both violent and clearly a deeply personal tale of one night which changes a man’s life forever.

Falling somewhere between the nightmare worlds of David Lynch and the tangled thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ manages to feel both timelessly classic and ultra modern all at once. The cinematography is beautiful, the production design is breath-taking and it just looks stunning, and boy, am I a sucker for a good-looking film!

The people  in Susan’s world are all beautiful too, all high-gloss, ultra-coiffed and in clothes that probably cost more than most of us make in a year. You can imagine everyone smells like lilies and cedarwood, as they waft through the glass corridors of their lives. Indeed marble and glass abound, with not one mote of dust present anywhere.

Meanwhile in the fictional world, which I’ll call Edward’s world, life is much harder. Set largely in the desert, Edward’s world is dry and dusty, filled with blood, sweat and tragedy. Cars are battered, people are fallible and life is cruel. From the opening sequence Ford makes a clear statement about the real value of art and materialism, with naked overweight women dancing with joyous gusto in front of a glittery backdrop (which we later discover is part of Susan’s latest exhibition) and this theme is followed up throughout the film with the two contrasting worlds.

The cast are all fantastic. Amy Adams is perfect in the role of the seemingly fragile Susan, Jake Gyllenhaal shows incredible range in his dual role, but for me the star turn was from Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray. Playing a suitably cartoonish fictional villain, as filtered through Susan’s fatigued mind, Taylor-Johnson’s Ray provides an insight into Edward and Susan’s perceptions of the world, and is both oddly charming and terrifying. Isla Fisher too is terrific in her short screen time in the story within the story.

The soundtrack too deserves a mention as Abel Korzeniowski’s (who also provided the soundtrack for Ford’s first film ‘A Single Man’) score echoes the sense of both classic film making and the ultra-modern, with swathes of orchestral melodrama reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock.

While I was mesmerised by the psychological tension, beautiful visuals and grandious score it seems that ‘Nocturnal Animals’ won’t be for everyone, with two people walking out of the Friday night screening I attended, and another couple commenting as the credits rolled that they’d rather watch ‘Sausage Party’ again.

For my money though ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a beautifully made, deeply affecting and tense exploration of the breakdown of a relationship, and is worth going to see in the cinema to enjoy those visuals and that soundtrack to best effect.

8 out of 10

The case of the disappearing film rating; or Why I’m adding ratings to reviews again

Film, TV

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What is my blog for? Who reads it? What do you want to know when I write about a film? What the hell do I know about films anyway?

Like many bloggers, and indeed writers in general, I have been grappling with the issue of why I write about films. Or more to the point, what you, the readers want from my reviews.

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that when I started out I didn’t give my reviews a score or grade, then started marking them out of five, then stopped again. More recently I have been dabbling with the school grade system, as being able to award plus or minuses to a grade seemed to give me more freedom. Why did I do it? What is going on?

Well, in short, I wasn’t really sure what I was rating. Was I rating as if I were a serious movie critic, rating the artistic merit of a film? Was I just letting you all know how much I enjoyed what I had watched? Or was I assessing it’s merits as a product, like grading the handling of a car or durability of a mop? Taking the ratings off seemed the simplest option to me, as then my words would, hopefully, get across what I wanted to say about the film, without reducing it down to a number.

The problem, I discovered, is people like numbers. “Yes, but what would you give it out of five?” came the comments on Facebook. People didn’t really seem to care what the five represented, they just wanted a number that could help them decide whether it was a film or TV show that was worth giving up their money and time for.

So, to satisfy the needs of people who just want to know whether to go and see a film or not, and to make me feel better about attaching an arbitrary grade to something, I have decided to do the following: give it a  grade out of ten. Yes, it’s reductive and annoying for anyone who had put their all into a creative piece, but it’s easy for readers.

Grades will broadly mean the following:

10- Practically perfect in every way, see it immediately

9- One extra shy of perfect

8- Solid and worthy of a trip to a real cinema

7- Entertaining, but wait for the blu-ray

6- Lacklustre, but has it’s moments so catch it on demand.

5- Wait until it’s on TV

4- Their mums probably still loved it

3- Their mums might still love them

2- Avoid like the plague

1- The plague was probably more pleasurable

I won’t be awarding zero as a score as ultimately someone, somewhere will have put their heart and soul into whatever is on the screen, even if it does turn out to be as awful as Only God Forgives.

I can then look at re-ordering my archived pages so I can group films by rating, making it easier for searching for something fun to watch.

Do let me know what you think of my new system, or indeed grading films in general.

Abbie

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Film

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Killing them Softly (2012)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot Mc Nairy, Ray Liotta   Directed by Andrew Dominick   Written by Andrew Dominick and George V. Higgins