Reviews

Review: Baby Driver

Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx
Released: July 13, 2017
Grade: A-

Baby Driver
If you’ve seen Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, you’ll know that writer-director Edgar Wright has a style and a sense of humour that is anything but conventional.  For cinephiles, that’s exciting.  His films take chances and are both original and memorable.  For powerful studio heads, that’s scary.  Wright was scheduled to direct the superhero film Ant-Man in 2014 but left the project due to “creative differences”.

As the saying goes – “when one door closes, another one opens.”  Just two months after leaving Ant-Man, Wright announced that his next project would be Baby Driver.  He had the idea in his head for more than two decades but the time had come to put a script together and get it made.  The finished product shows that he’s been given a great deal of creative freedom.

If you focus solely on the plot, one could argue that this film is a seen-it-all-before action piece.  Doc (Spacey) is the leader of a crew that orchestrates robberies across Atlanta.  Those he enlists include Buddy (Hamm), Bats (Foxx), Griff (Bernthal) and Darling (Gonzalez). They sound like characters from an old-fashioned crime drama.

Critical to the success of all the heists is Baby (Elgort), a quiet young man with incredible skills when behind the wheel of the car.  He’s the perfect getaway driver and his talent would fit nicely alongside Dominic Toretto in the Fast and the Furious franchise.  Baby has fallen in love and is keen to get out of the business but has been pulled back in for “one last job.”

Don’t roll your eyes.  While it sounds a little cheesy, Baby Driver wows audiences with its charm and flair.  Central to everything is its “killer” soundtrack.  Baby is a little socially awkward and suffers from tinnitus (a ringing sensation in the ear) after a childhood accident.  To compensate, he listens to music during almost every waking moment of his day.  There’s a scene where he needs to flee a robbery but before doing so, he has to pull up a particular song on his old iPod to help create the right mood (much to the disgust of his fellow crew members).

Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) brings the lead character to life with his terrific performance.  He’s very likeable (despite turning to a life of crime) and you get a sense that he’s a few steps ahead of everyone else with his thought process.  It is part of the reason why he can evade the police during car chases and part of the reason why others in the crew don’t know how to deal with him.  He’s a cool individual.

The tone gets a little darker during the final half-hour and I wasn’t fully sold by the ending but Baby Driver is a super fun action film that uses music as its hook as opposed to over-the-top stunts and special effects.  Thanks Edgar.

You can read my chat with writer-director Edgar Wright by clicking here.

 

Review: The Beguiled

Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence
Released: July 13, 2017
Grade: B+

The Beguiled
Set in 1864 during the midst of the American Civil War, The Beguiled is shot entirely in one location – a seminary for young ladies located in a rural part of Virginia.  It’s a beautiful white mansion where the girls study during the day and help tend to the household at night.  They are educated about music, language and other important things to help guide them through life.

Business isn’t exactly booming though.  Given the outbreak of the war, which is practically at their doorstep, many of the students have returned home to be with their families.  Just five girls remain and they are only there because they have nowhere else to go.  They are taught each day by the two women who run the seminary – Martha Farnsworth (Kidman) and Edwina Morrow (Dunst).

The monotony of their lives is upended when one of the young girls finds a wounded soldier in the nearby woods.  He identifies himself as Corporal John McBurney (Farrell), a “Yankee” from the Union Army who lives in New York.  Instead of turning him over to the authorities, the strict Miss Farnsworth unexpectedly shows a more compassionate side.  She tends to John’s injuries and agrees to provide him refuge until he is well enough to leave.

John’s arrival completely changes the dynamic within the household.  He’s a “novelty” that everyone is fascinated with.  All the girls want to chat and interact with him.  Miss Farnsworth tries to maintain a sense of decorum but it’s not long because things escalate.  Edwina and Alicia (Fanning) are both taken by his charming demeanour.  It’s hard to work out if he’s seducing them or if it’s the other way around.  

If this story sounds familiar, perhaps you’re familiar with the 1971 release which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page.  Both are based on the 1966 novel written by the late Thomas P. Cullinan.  I won’t reveal too much in terms of plot development but this is a curious character study with a few interesting twists.  There are mind games aplenty here.  Each of the major characters is driven by a particular desire but it’s clear that things won’t work out for everyone.

There are some terrific exchanges between Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell who both deliver strong performances.  John is trying to get beyond Martha’s prickly exterior and understand what makes her tick.  On the flip side, she is using her own methods to establish if he is a “good guy” and is someone worth risking the seminary to protect.  While they battle with words, others take a different approach.  Elle Fanning is terrific as a young woman who isn’t shy in hiding her growing sexual desires.

Written and directed by Oscar winner Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), The Beguiled isn’t centred on one particular character.  Rather, we see things from a number of perspectives and this gives the film a slightly fragmented feel.  We don’t always know what’s going on within the walls of the house at any one point in time.  While focusing on one particular conservation, another of equal significance is going on elsewhere in the house which we’re not privy too.

Coppola etched her name into the history books at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year when she became only the second woman in history to win the best director prize.  While I admire the beauty of the setting and the interaction between the characters, I was hoping for more from the broader narrative.  It’s slow in places and doesn’t offer as strong a “pay off” as some might expect.

You can read my chat with star Angourie Rice by clicking here.

 

Review: Transformers: The Last Knight

Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, Isabela Moner, Stanley Tucci
Released: June 22, 2017
Grade: C-

Transformers: The Last Knight
I’m often hesitant when taking a friend to the movies.  They know I’m a critic and so there’s an expectation that I’ll be taking them to something good.  All of my fears were realised at the media preview of Transformers: The Last Knight.  As the closing credits started to roll after the outrageously long 149 minute running time, I turned to my good friend and simply said “I’m sorry.”  He knew exactly what I was apologising for.

Michael Bay has made some great action films.  Bad Boys and The Rock immediately to spring to mind.  Some of the films in this series haven’t been too bad either.  I’m a fan of the original Transformers and also the second sequel, Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  I say this so as not to sound too mean spirited.  I don’t have a grudge against Bay or these giant talking robots.  My qualms are limited to this film and just how bad it is.

It’s as if Bay and his three-man writing team suffer from extremely short attention spans.  There are an inordinate number of characters and they’re continually traversing across the globe.  You know that part of a movie where a new location is used and the director puts the place name in the bottom left corner of the screen to provide context?  They may as well have left it up permanently here given it changes so often.

To sum up the story – some stuff happens, some more stuff happens, and then it all comes to action packed close.  To provide a little more confusing detail… a group of not-so-nice Transformers are intent on sucking the nutrients out of the Earth’s surface and using it to regenerate their own planet.  To stop them, a human to get their hands on a magical spear thing which was once controlled by King Arthur’s Merlin (yes, that’s right) and has been kept hidden for centuries.

I couldn’t keep up with all the subplots.  Mark Wahlberg returns as Cade Yeager – a father who is a fan of the “friendly” Transformers and is keeping them hidden from those who want to kill them.  He’s being pursued by a military team headed by Josh Duhamel who aren’t well organised.  Over in England, Laura Haddock plays an Oxford professor who is caught up in the mayhem.

Let’s not forget Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins who plays a kooky historian from a secret society that passes down knowledge about the Transformers.  He’s somewhat helped by John Turturro in what must be the most pointless performance of his career.  There are storylines involving the Transformers too but those are even less interesting.

Transformers: The Last Knight is a long, punishing struggle that offers very little in the way of entertainment.  I’d given up by the final hour.  I didn’t care what happened to these characters or how the narrative resolved itself.  I just wanted it to end so I could return to a world where everything isn’t in slow motion and where the image in front of me doesn’t change every quarter of a second.

 

Review: Lady Macbeth

Directed by: William Oldroyd
Written by: Alice Birch
Starring: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank
Released: June 29, 2017
Grade: B

Lady Macbeth
Despite what the title may suggest, Lady Macbeth isn’t a fresh spin on one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays.  Rather, it’s a loose adaptation of a 19th Century book from Russian novelist Nikolai Leskov.  There’s a small connection with Shakespeare though.  Leskov included Lady Macbeth’s name in the title in reference to the fact that his own leading lady was a cunning murderer.

In adapting the novel to the screen, first-time writer Alice Birch has shifted the setting from Russia to England.  Katherine (Pugh) is a young woman who lives in a beautiful country home but is married to a man she does not love.  It was all arranged with Katherine having no say whatsoever.  Her husband, Alexander (Hilton) offers little in the way of meaningful conservation and his short, quick antics in the bedroom only add to his negative qualities.

The setting here is 1865 and those familiar with the works of acclaimed Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters will know this was a time when men ruled society and women were expected to act in a subservient manner.  Suffice to say that Katherine doesn’t fit that description.  When her husband goes away on a long business trip, she has an affair with Sebastian (Jarvis), a scruffy-looking worker who helps tend to their land.  Her desire for a more fulfilling relationship is reminiscent of Madame Bovary – the novel authored by Gustave Flaubert which was published a few years before Leskov’s.

21-year-old newcomer Florence Pugh brings this intriguing character to life.  There are times when you’ll feel sorry for her.  She is verbally abused by her husband and father-in-law.  She’s warned that she shouldn’t even step foot outside the house.  With the house run by a group of long-term servants, Katherine actually has nothing to do.  There’s a humorous scene where she falls asleep in the middle of the day when sitting on a couch in the living room.  She’s bored stupid.

There are also scenes where your opinions of Katherine may shift.  As the affair commences, she puts one of the household’s most loyal servants, Anna (Ackie), in a tricky position.  Anna knows precisely what is transpiring but keeps quiet in the interests of preserving her job.  Things get a lot darker too.  Katherine will end up with blood on her hands as her secrets spill into the open.

It’s a little slow in places but Lady Macbeth is still an interesting drama from director William Oldroyd.  Music is often used in films to guide audiences towards a certain way of thinking.  A light, bubbly film score puts audiences at ease while a dark, intense score can create a sense of dread.  Oldroyd takes a different route here by leaving music out altogether!  You’re not sure how to feel and this adds to its creepy, unsettling nature.

A cross between a Jane Austen period piece and a Quentin Tarantino drama, Lady Macbeth is decidedly different.

 

Review: Cars 3

Directed by: Brian Fee
Written by: Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, Mike Rich
Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy
Released: June 22, 2017
Grade: B+

Cars 3
By way of recap, the original Cars (released in 2006) was centred on a race car named Lightning McQueen (Wilson) as he tried to become the first rookie to win the lucrative Piston Cup Championship.  There were clear themes in the film related to friendship and the price of fame.  McQueen’s success made him somewhat arrogant but after a serious of valuable lessons, he was a more “down to earth” car by film’s end.

The 2011 sequel wasn’t as energising.  Writer-director John Lasseter tried to take the franchise in a different direction with an elaborate tale that saw McQueen and his friends travel to a locations around the world as part of a new World Grand Prix.  It was borrowing from the pages of James Bond in that it was framed as a spy thriller with thefts and kidnappings.  It wasn’t well received and remains one of the most poorly reviewed films to come from Pixar Animation Studios.

It’s nice to see the series returning to its roots with Cars 3.  It marks the directorial debut of Brian Fee who has spent more than decade working for Pixar as a storyboard artist.  The broad narrative also completes the character arc for Lightning McQueen.  In the first film, he was the naïve rookie trying to make a name for himself.  Now, he’s the wily veteran trying to get his name on the trophy one last time before retirement.

There’s a message here about how things change over time.  McQueen is a great racer but he’s struggling to complete against a new range of faster cars that are led by Jackson Storm (Hammer), a take-no-nonsense rival who is intent on winning every race.  A knowledgeable statistician gives Storm a 96% chance of winning the opening race of the season – such is his power and skill.

This is something that we see in all sports.  Veterans, who have put their entire live into their sport, find themselves being edged out of the game by a new generation.  It’s sad but it’s also inevitable.  This doesn’t sit too well with McQueen who is in need of another reality check.  He teams up with new coach Cruz Ramirez (Alonzo) to help give him the energy to match Jackson Storm but things don’t quite work out as he expected.

The story is a little sluggish in places.  The focus is a too much on McQueen and it’s a shame more isn’t made of the many supporting players.  That said, it comes together beautifully in the closing half-hour with a finale that will satisfy audiences while also offering a few surprising twists.  Hopefully the themes sink through.

From a technical perspective, Brain Fee and his huge team have done an outstanding job when it comes to the animation.  The race track scenes are thrilling to watch as see the cars weaving between each other while travelling at 200 mph.  There’s also a great attention to detail with close-ups of wheels spinning and sparks flying.  Kids may not appreciate these finer details but they should be engrossed by what they see on screen.

I get the sense this may be the last in the Cars franchise and if so, I’ve enjoyed the ride.

 

Review: Monsieur Chocolat

Directed by: Roschdy Zem
Written by: Cyril Gely, Olivier Gorce, Gerard Noiriel, Roschdy Zem
Starring: Omar Sy, James Thierrée, Clotilde Hesme, Olivier Gourmet, Frédéric Pierrot, Noémie Lvovsky
Released: June 29, 2017
Grade: B+

Monsieur Chocolat
History is littered with fascinating individuals.  Some are widely known.  Some are hardly known at all.  Rafael Padilla fits into that second category.  Played in this film by Omar Sy (The Intouchables), Padilla made a name for himself working as a circus performer in the late 19th century.  As the film opens, we see he’s part of a small troupe travelling through northern France.  His act isn’t particularly challenging.  He plays a cannibal who jumps around the stage and frightens the audience.  They appear to be just as scared by the fact he is black – such are their racist tendencies.

Padilla catches an unlikely break when he is approached by a struggling clown looking to spice up his act.  George Foottit (Thierrée) is on the verge of being fired and in a rare moment of inspiration, he decides to team up with Padilla to become one of the first black-white comedy duos.  They gel instantly with both acting like a complete fool on stage.  In fitting with the audience’s wishes, it is Padilla who ends up being the butt of most of jokes and he is given the stage name “Chocolat” to fit with his dark skin.

It’s not long before Foottit and Padilla are whisked away to Paris and are playing in front of large, sold-out crowds every night.  It’s an incredible rise to stardom for Padilla who was born into poverty, raised in Cuba, and sold to a Spanish slave trader when just a boy.  He now had more money than he could ever dream of.  While most black people were struggling to put food on the table, he was driving around in a flash new car.

There was a dark side however.  The fact remained that he was always considered “secondary” to the more high profile Foottit.  That was evident in their pay packets.  Further, audiences were still just as racist.  It felt like they were laughing “at” him as much as they were laughing “with” him.  Padilla also had a few self-inflicted wounds.  He developed an addiction to drinking and gambling which threatened to derail his career and relationships.

Monsieur Chocolat is an interesting tale that offers much to digest.  Padilla broke through barriers and “changed the nature of comedy” in the early 20th Century.  There’s a nice clip during the closing credits that shows rare footage of the real Padilla as he and Foottit perform a small part of their act.  It’s amazing to think that it’s survived more than a century.  We also get a glimpse of life as a performing artist in the early 1900s and see that it was just as tense and just as competitive as it is today.

Omar Sy and James Thierrée deliver fine performances that highlight the strengths and flaws of their respective characters.  Your opinions of them will most likely oscillate throughout the two hour running time.  James Thierrée took home the César Award earlier this year for best supporting actor with Omar Sy also nominated in the best actor category.  Their recognition was deserved.