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

 

 

My Cousin Rachel (2017) review: Weisz impresses in Du Maurier’s classic ‘Did she or didn’t she?’

Film

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Director:  Roger Michell Writers:  Daphne Du Maurier (novel), Roger Michell (adaptation) Starring: Rachel WeiszSam ClaflinHolliday Grainger

Synopsis: “The story of a young Englishman, Philip (Claflin) who plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin, Rachel (Weisz), believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms.”

The director of Notting Hill brings us this fresh take on Daphne Du Maurier’s dark thriller My Cousin Rachel. The book had previously been brought to life in 1952, just a year after the publication of the source novel, in a lavish affair starring Richard Burton and Olivia De Havilland which, while not quite reaching the heights of fame of other Du Maurier adaptations Rebecca and Don’t Look Now, was considered a cinematic success and was nominated for 4 academy awards. To attempt another adaptation could be seen as a bold move, but Michell and team do bring a breath of fresh air to the story.

The story itself is not so much of a whodunnit, but rather a ‘did she do it?’ as we take Philip’s perspective in attempting to unravel the true story of his guardian’s death.

During the early scenes of the film we only hear about the mysterious Rachel through letters and gossip, she comes into Philip’s life not with the bang and confrontation he had been expecting, but with an understated entrance that means our first view of her is silhouetted against the moon, her back to a window. Rather than the monster we are led to expect, Rachel is quiet, funny and warm, with the household’s army of dogs following her about loyally from the moment she arrives.

As Philip’s infatuation grows, Rachel remains a mystery. She seems genuine in her affections for her departed husband Ambrose (the ‘great family resemblance’ is achieved by Claflin playing both roles) but why does she keep plying Philip with that odd herbal tea…?

Weisz plays Rachel with great skill, with Michell seeming to lead our expectations one way as a single glance leads us another. Rachel seems decidedly modern and at odds with the stifling societal expectations exhibited by all those around her. Indeed the fact that she is a woman ‘of appetites’ is whispered knowingly by several of the supporting cast. However Weisz ensures Rachel flits between being charming and likeable then cold and standoffish, just enough to keep us asking ourselves if she could really be capable of murder.

Claflin plays Philip every inch as the ‘wet-nosed- puppy’ Rachel describes him, which does become grating at times. Seeing the world through Philip’s eyes is a somewhat disarming and claustrophobic experience, with the view sometimes becoming as blank and shallow as he seems.

Philip’s lack of experience with women is referenced several times, and indeed the view of Rachel we are given is one buried beneath his own misunderstanding and confusion, alongside a burning attraction and fascination. The whole film could be seen as a giant metaphor for modern cinema, as we struggle along with an old-fashioned male gaze trying to depict highly complex modern womanhood.

While the longing glances and candlelit encounters increase, the orchestral score swells, keeping true to the genre. Other melodramatic tropes abound, from the waves crashing on the shore to the string of pearls breaking and scattering down the stairs.

The film may seem a little slow for some tastes, but the many threads of the story are drawn together in a deft web for the final act. Audiences have been discussing their view of Rachel for over 50 years, and this won’t change that, but ultimately My Cousin Rachel is a well-made period melodrama with an interesting modern twist.

7 out of 10

 

 

 

Lady Macbeth (2017) review: Macabre melodrama

Film

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Director:  William Oldroyd Writers: Nikolai Leskov (based on the novel by), Alice Birch (screenplay)Starring: Florence Pugh, Naomi AckieChristopher FairbankCosmo Jarvis

Synopsis: “Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.”

Oldroyd establishes early on that this will not be a run-of-the-mill costume drama, but rather a melodrama that will play with viewer expectations at every turn.

We first see Katherine (Florence Pugh) on her wedding day; a simple shot of her demure face under a veil, turning coquettishly towards the camera. The next scene finds Katherine on her wedding night, her Grinch of a husband barking at her to remove her night-gown only for him to glance at her naked body before he gets into bed and falls asleep.

There is no romance here.

For the first half hour Lady Macbeth feels like a study of boredom, as we are exposed to the same dull, quiet rooms as Katherine, with just a ticking clock marking the passage of time in the cold northern home she now inhabits, virtually alone, as her husband and father-in-law have departed for undisclosed locations. Motes of dust become dazzling points of light, otherwise the screen is still and bereft of interest, bar Florence Pugh’s captivating face.

Katherine’s sole companion in the manor is her lady-in-waiting Anna (Naomi Ackie) who helps her dress, brushes her hair and serves her dinner with increasing levels of aggression, (the reasons for which become abundantly clear).

A turning point in the story of solitude comes when Katherine wanders to the outhouses out of boredom one day to find Anna being held hostage, naked, by some of the workers. She demands she is released and bad-boy groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) is introduced to the story.

After a distinctly problematic courtship (Straw Dogs, anyone?) a relationship between the pair unfolds and it becomes apparent that Katherine is not the usual costume-drama heroine. As her behaviour descends into the unpleasant, then the horrific, any audience sympathy for Katherine dissipates and  Lady Macbeth begins to feel like an odd combination of Wuthering Heights and 2011 horror film The Woman; an exploration of the natural, primal and animalistic versus the urbane, civilised and constrained.

Katherine’s choices are made out of boredom, as a way of raging against her captivity, and Pugh’s performance is every inch the caged tiger.

There are some bold directorial choices made, with the camera often avoiding some of the more disturbing action, remaining static as if keeping it’s gaze demurely averted.

The soundtrack is as sparse and unnerving as the visuals, with long passages of almost complete silence, often punctuated only by the naturalistic soundtrack of the wind whistling around the house, or the aforementioned clock ticking.

Lady Macbeth is both a bold directorial debut for Oldroyd and also a showcase of the significant talent of Florence Pugh,  but the dark tale certainly won’t be for everyone.

7 out of 10

Logan (2017) review: X-Men Endings

Film

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Director: James Mangold Writers: James Mangold (story by), Scott Frank (screenplay)    Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen

Synopsis: “It’s 2029. Mutants are gone-or very nearly so. An isolated, despondent Logan is drinking his days away in a hideout on a remote stretch of the Mexican border, picking up petty cash as a driver for hire. His companions in exile are the outcast Caliban and an ailing Professor X, whose singular mind is plagued by worsening seizures. But Logan’s attempts to hide from the world and his legacy abruptly end when a mysterious woman appears with an urgent request–that Logan shepherd an extraordinary young girl to safety. Soon, the claws come out as Logan must face off against dark forces and a villain from his own past on a live-or-die mission, one that will set the time-worn warrior on a path toward fulfilling his destiny.” Rotten Tomatoes
James Mangold was not fucking around when he soundtracked the early trailer for Logan with Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Hurt’. This film is is about pain, suffering, grit and guilt. A brilliantly drawn modern western; a road movie; a film about ageing, family and man vs myth… None of which I was expecting when I went in to see the latest in the X-Men movie franchise behemoth.
Mangold’s previous work on Cash biopic ‘Walk the Line’ and western ‘3.10 to Yuma’ are a better reference point to anyone wondering where Logan sits in terms of tone than any of the other X-Men films.
Setting out his stall early on, Mangold shows us  Logan, passed out  on the back seat of his car from drinking, having his rims stolen by a young gang of ‘chollos’ near the Mexican border. A reluctant Logan ends up mutilating and killing the young men after they shoot him, despite trying to de-escalate the situation. It’s a brutal opening sequence that sees a very different Wolverine to that of other X-Men outings. This Wolverine is plagued by arthritis, poor vision and above all, world-weariness. If this were a different type of movie he’d be uttering the staple line “I’m getting too old for this shit”.
However, Logan the film is far from obvious, with some beautifully drawn characters and elegant dialogue that allow actors to be able to portray some complex emotions with just a glance. This sees both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s best performances in any of the X-Men films, and perhaps even some of their best performances full stop as they are given some meaty material to work with.
Dafne Keen, as Laura, is a revelation. Her performance as the young mutant whose presence forces Logan’s dysfunctional family out of hiding is stunning. One minute she is feral and terrifying, but then with a glance she reminds you she is just a little girl, one who has been abused and damaged and is trying to make sense of the world.
A scene in which Professor X and Laura sit in a hotel room watching 1953 western Shane gives the audience an insight into Mangold’s intention for Logan the film. This is 100% western or road movie, stripping away the usual bluster and complexity of comic book films to concentrate on character and emotional development. On the TV screen a character says ” Joey, there’s no living with… with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back.” Every death in Logan matters. It is brutal, painful and has repercussions for all involved. Indeed it’s almost Hobbesian in it’s portrayal of life being ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.
Logan is the graphic novel to the previous X-Men films’ comic books. A brutal and brilliant grown-up look at ageing, dementia, death and decay which happens to feature some characters from comic books, which unexpectedly left me an emotional wreck.
9 out of 10