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Baby Driver (2017) – Film Review

The opening to Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” feels a bit braggadocios, a bit indulgent, and a bit too similar to a recent Apple commercial. All in one take, the opening tracking shot follows our main character, Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, as he walks freely through the streets, crossing roads, passing murals, and avoiding bystanders. Each set piece he walks by correlates with the words in the song he’s listening to with his signature earbuds, always at hand and usually blaring full volume.

It’s a clever opening, though very self-referential: “Shaun of the Dead” featured one of the greatest one take tracking shots ever with Simon Pegg’s character bumbling through his town, ignorant of the blood and zombies surrounding him as he yawns his way through the vacant streets. The movie slows down a bit after the opening street dance/music video, getting into the reality of Baby’s life as a getaway driver for low-life, high-stake criminals.

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The leader of the operation is Doc, played smugly by Kevin Spacey. Jamie Foxx plays the confrontational character, even having a line in the movie commenting about the crazy position being filled already, by him. Jon Hamm plays a more sedated role as Buddy, another member of the crew; he wants to get the job done and get out of town with his girlfriend as soon as possible.

Baby drives as a result of a traumatic childhood experience involving a car wreck and the death of his mother. He has permanent ringing issues in his ears as a result of the accident, hence the constant music. The soundtrack is the lifeblood of the movie: the characters question it constantly, but when the music starts, Baby switches gears and turns into an 11th grade version of Ryan Gosling in “Drive”. He’s slick and intelligent, knowing the routes by heart, able to intuitively escape from seemingly inescapable scenarios.

Lily James plays Deborah, a young girl that works as a waitress at the diner where Baby’s mother used to wait tables. He’s a regular at the diner and soon garners her attention with a few of his songs and some friendly conversation. They have a runaway vibe throughout, though their relationship can’t be entirely filled out due to his responsibilities to Doc as the whiz-kid driver.

The movie has a lot of heart and clearly a lot of passion for the art of fast-speed driving. The coordination that had to happen to clear the roads and perform the spinning, sliding car donuts must have been exhausting. “Baby Driver” is an exhilarating chase movie made by one of the most inventive action directors of the decade.

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It (2017) – Film Review

“It” wasn’t supposed to garner the biggest September box office opening of all time. “It” had been in development turmoil for awhile, swapping directors, dropping Will Coulter as the actor to play Pennywise, and generally being bogged down by a bad streak of Stephen King movies. The Dark Tower was a disaster both financially and critically. But despite all of the doubts, the team behind “It” moved past it through great casting, a distinct visual palette, and a star turn from Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

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Finn Wolfhard, the main character from Netflix’s Stranger Things, plays the wise-cracking Richie in “It”, a change in tone from his earnest TV persona. He swears and brags about sex he’s never had. He brings a great comedic lightness to the movie, an important glue character that ties the group of troubled kids together.

Bill, played by Jaeden Lieberher, is the stuttering older brother of Georgie, the infamous victim of Pennywise’s sewer tricks. He has an emotional arc surrounding his brother that’s very intense and heartfelt. It’s made all the better by the filmmakers choosing to focus only on the characters as children, not flashing back and forth between their adult years. That will be the sequel, apparently.

Sophia Lillis plays Beverly, the tomboy girl with both an undeserved reputation at school and a hostile relationship with her heated father. She’s looking for someone to latch onto, and the losers, the main group of kids that hangout together, including Bill and Richie, a sympathetic fat boy and a home-schooled outsider, are the first she finds. She is more mature and even looks three years older than all of them. She fits in within their little squad very quickly.

Pennywise isn’t just a scary killer clown; he’s a monster capable of transporting and morphing into different entities. His mouth can shape-shift into a long, wide black hole filled with a hundred spears of teeth. But the natural physical gestures performed by Bill Skarsgard are plenty creepy enough.

An “It” producer said in a press interview that they consciously created a strategy to keep Skarsgard out of the late night circuits and press junket interviews. By doing this, the producer explained, the viewer would see Pennywise the monster first and Skarsgard the actor second. His piercing eyes and odd lip movements are huge aspects of the performance, and his real-life interviews don’t mask these intense features/expressions that landed him the role in the first place. If his face were all over magazine covers, the mystique of the Pennywise look wouldn’t be as immediate or as thrilling. Viewers would look at the clown and be able to point out the quirky gestures of the Swedish actor.

Bill Skarsgard made some sort of comment comparing his performance as Pennywise to Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. I don’t know the context of his actual statement, but if he was saying that he had taken inspiration from Ledger’s Joker, it’s very apparent within the film. He shakes his head and laughs hoarsely at the kids, mimicking their state of absolute terror in the same way Ledger laughed as he was beat down by Batman while being interrogated. The reckless, unfiltered joy in the chaos and violence. They share a lot of common qualities in their performances, though Ledger’s makeup was dried and peeling and Pennywise’s face has been intricately painted and adjusted with CGI effects.

The new Stephen King adaption is a definite success on a long checklist of big-screen failures. “It” is a classic, well-known story with a tantalizingly creepy, enduring villain. If you’re worried about “It 2: The Adults”, be reassured that Pennywise will return and be as welcome as he has been in 2017. He’s a timeless character that will always hold some sort of grasp on audience’s fears.

The Magnificent Seven – Film Review

The greatest moments of “The Magnificent Seven” aren’t the scenes where all the magnificent’s are sitting around, talking about their magnificent adventures. Movies should show, not tell, and I agree. But if you aren’t willing to show a characters journey, their past, their present state in the world, then you’ve got to try to tell us a little bit about them.

Cowboys talk in gravely, deep-voiced mumbles, I understand. But not all of them. Josh Faraday, the alcoholic magician played by Chris Pratt (or is it just Chris Pratt played by Chris Pratt?), has a lot to say. The quiet one, Chisolm, played by Denzel Washington, talks and acts as if he were living in an entirely different cinematic universe, a slow-burn, darkly-lit drama photographed by Roger Deakins.

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Luckily for Chisolm, he isn’t required to interact a whole lot with this ensemble, other than the obligatory assembling and introductions of the squad. We’ve got 7 here? One, two, three…I count six. Never mind, the seventh is standing over there, as Pratt’s character says in the beginning of the film, “Oh, good, we’ve got a Mexican!”

On-screen diversity is a hot topic in Hollywood and they’ve responded, if not in any dramatic way. They’re learning that people don’t just want diverse characters, they want actual characters. You know, a person with a motive other than revenge or a skill unrelated to their culture.

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The Chinese cowboy, Billy Rocks, played by Lee Byung-hun, is very skilled at throwing all sorts of sharp, metallic weapons, even his own hair-pin. It’s typical to cast a Chinese man as the prototypical knife-thrower (with a twist, albeit), but at least his stereotype isn’t dull. Billy actually rocks. He’s a quiet character but arguably the most entertaining of them all.

The second most engaging character arc would have to be Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, a PTSD-ridden sharpshooter who uses Billy as a circus entertainer for the locals, splitting the dividends between them. Their relationship seems very complex: Billy feels bad for Goodnight’s war-torn suffering, while Goodnight takes advantage of a foreign mans abilities for his own gain.

The film doesn’t come close to replecating the greatness of the original film, or even close to The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s original telling of the tale. But beyond the sketchy, loosely-plotted characters, there is a thirty-minute plus action sequence that’s very entertaining. If anything, you can be assured that director Antoine Fuqua hasn’t lost his interest or his touch in direction large scale, dynamite-driven action sequences.

Whiplash (2014) – Film Review

 

“Whiplash”, a deservedly praised, knockout hit, is the first feature film of Damien Chazelle, a clearly talented young director. It follows a college-aged drummer, Andrew, played by Miles Teller, as he struggles to achieve his highly ambitious musical goals.

Young and consumed by equal parts doubt and confidence, Andrew ends up in the crazed hands of a vulgar, extremely intense composer and instructor, Terrence Fletcher, brilliantly played by a wide-eyed, spit yelling J.K. Simmons.

The film explores the pressures put upon those who participate in elite, highly-competitive orchestras. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, has had direct experiences within the field of musical performance.

The movie has a very specific idea that it poses to us on an even narrative strand throughout its running time. And that is: how far should a person be pushed and pressured towards absolute perfection? Is there such a thing as too far? Is  being healthy but lesser better than being great but maniacal?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and that’s what makes them compelling to both ask and watch unfold, as Andrew is humiliated and berated by his teacher in order to come out the other side as the best drummer he can possibly be (which he would never know, the film asserts, if he wasn’t pushed in the first place).

The screaming dialogue fiercely performed by J.K. Simmons must have been a riot to sit down and actually write. It seems like such a contradiction to see a man teaching beautiful and archaic symphonies one minute, and then violently screaming imaginatively-worded obscenities the other.

Andrew walks into a bar late one night after recognizing his old instructors name plastered on the marquee outside. We witness Terrence actually performing, his face calm, his eyes closing slightly in an unusually serene expression of peace.

The feisty former instructor seems very much at ease as he plays the melodic piano music. But what does the man love the most? The literal sound of the music or the sense of perfection felt from hitting all the right keys? Does he cherish his abilities in contrast to all of the cues his students fail to hit?

Premium Rush (2012)

Premium Rush, a movie that brands itself as a thunderous, fast-paced thrill ride, is a bit of a disappointment. It features some excellent performances, most notably from Michael Shannon, but places them like simple pawns on the city streets, en route a formulaic plot and an unsatisfying, predictable pay-off. There are enjoyable parts in the film where we are amused and intrigued by the characters, their actions and situations, but not enough to sustain a feature-length film.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, an enigmatic bike messenger who rides inexhaustibly throughout the streets of New York. The decisions made by the messengers have to be decisive and smart: there cannot be any indecision when looking for a way through traffic, and that’s why Wilee doesn’t have any brakes, period. This is the macho line that sets Wilee aside from the other hardcore messengers, though when we’re talking about bicycles, it seems like mentioning testosterone and competitiveness is a joke in itself. The slow-motion cinematography, implemented during times when Wilee is trying to calculate the best route in, around, and between speeding, dangerous boxes of rationally-assembled metal; arrows appear on the screen, a borderline lazy cinematic technique that could have easily been replaced with some urgent editing; anybody remember “Limitless”, with Bradley Cooper? A cinematographer can express distance miles ahead of where a person stands, and the viewer will understand the message, the size-able amount of land to conquer.

The rule is that once you get the package, you don’t trade or hand it off to anyone except the final destination, the recipient, ot explain who it’s intended for, or where it originated from. Wilee isn’t ready to break that rule, his job principles remaining firm.  He takes an envelope from a Chinese college student in intention of delivering it, and is encountered by a nosy man, Bobby Monday, who says nothing of credentials, and for a specifically implicit reason. The story that follows becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Wilee and Officer Monday after Wilee finds out Monday’s occupation while reporting him to his own station. A cop on a bike who doesn’t seem to have been trained along the lines of Mr. Livestrong, adds an ‘aw shucks’ comic-relief, always close to and in pursuit of Wilee but never actually capturing him.

The reasons behind Wilee being a daredevil bike messenger are not revealed through any sort of character development: instead, it is said that he simply does it because he doesn’t want to wear a suit and sit in an office, an explanation reminiscent  of the voice-over in Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting”, a wholly different story, but with the same sort of social futility. The difference, though, is the rebel personalities in Trainspotting have been built up, their every word having an emotional impact. Wilee, for all we know, could just be a lazy, greedy maniac frantically spinning his bike wheels. He’s constantly talking from the blue-tooth device plugged into his ear as he rides, often times trying to repair mistakes while swerving through cars sweeping past him, a 8-bit arcade game brought to life. What a life.

It’s an enjoyable movie at face-value, even for people who shy away from prototypical ‘action movies’; maybe even more for them, as it isn’t any sort of martial-arts or gun wielding spectacle. The acting is solidly consistent and there are some engaging scenes that momentarily hold ones attention–but it’s little more than what the title suggests: a fast-paced pump of adrenaline to the gut, missing anything substantive or interesting for the viewer to keep track of.

Following Sean


“Following Sean” is an engaging documentary, focusing on the youth of a hippy-parented boy and then finding him, Sean, again later in life. It isn’t fictional, which can make you cringe a few times that we are following a normal, family occupied man with a camera because his dad was a hippy. But the film bars your expectations, and one is equally enigmatic as the filmmaker to see how Sean turned out.

Sean was smoking cannabis at age four, running through the crowded street corners beneath long-legged and bearded smokers, wearing ti-dye shirts and colorful scarfs. He was a child of the peace-movement. The documentary, “Following Sean” poses from the beginning, “What will Sean be like as an adult?” And as the student-film footage of the Director’s hippy years are shown, we grow an inexperienced nostalgia for this area. Following Sean is a bit directionless, but it is also a poignant and effective sentimental documentary.

Pi

Max Cohen has a long list of mental-problems, psycho somatic, hyper-obsessiveness, severe headaches because he allegedly stared at the sun when he was young; too many to continue naming. Max is played by a taut-faced Sean Gullette to great, authentic effect. Similar to ‘Peeping Tom’, this movie has little interaction outside of Max and his mind’s manifestations.

Max wants to break the secrets of Pi and predict the stock market; he is obsessive, hallucinatory, and has very little friends, besides a seizure-stricken retired Mathematician. The man discusses during casual father-son like meetings, that approaching Math with conviction and desire for a conclusion will get to you floating towards a dead end. Indeed, the man gets the seizures from being overly-attentive to his studies, depicted in the film like a drug.

The movie is shot in black-and-white and features some powerful moments of panic. It is has some irrefutable similarities to Aronofsky’s later work ‘Requiem for a Dream’ like the sharp close-up to the cupped pill flying into the needy mouth of its target. But this is meager, it’s his own work and he has the the right to draw from it.

The movie is a stark representation of intellectual-obsession and how it can madden ones soul, albeit it
doesn’t help to be slightly mad already. The voice-over callback to ‘When I was young I stared at the sun’ is partly a signal to the audience of his troubled existence, and also his Dysfunctional Defiance Syndrome, hence wanting to crack the stock-market because he is repeatedly told he cannot.

The film is a stark, nightmarish auteur-attempt and fits the black-and-white bill as good as any modern film can. The end scene fades, like the final scenes of Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’, with a gloom of ambiguous prosperity and heaven, a long needed escape from needing so erratically to know.