It’s not often in a film containing daredevil car chases, criminal showdowns, and wild west-style bank robberies that the most thrilling moment could be a stroll down the sidewalk to grab some coffee, but hey, director Edgar Wright is all about messing with audience expectations, so why not? Though Baby Driver may not achieve the finely-tuned results of his previous efforts at blending genres like Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead, when this romantic-musical-meets-action-packed-heist-story manages to pop into the right gear, it purrs like a low-RPM, high-octane popcorn movie kitten. The last act revs things up a bit too far past the redline until the whole thing threatens to blow, but the beautiful music created by some truly virtuoso filmmaking thankfully keeps the resulting knocks and pings relegated to mere background noise.
Combining a boy-meets-girl arc with the old “one last score” crime story trope, Baby Driver sees a young man named Baby (it makes sense in context) working off his accidental debt to an underworld boss by performing as a getaway driver for various crews and capers. Due to some tinnitus brought on from an early childhood incident, Baby uses an assortment of iPods loaded with tracks to dull the ringing and keep him focused (a possible explanation for his Jedi-like driving abilities), as well as drown out the rest of a world he doesn’t really feel a part of yet. Only a few jobs away from settling up, Baby yearns to bust free from the shady shackles he’s currently held by, and upon meeting a charmingly sunny diner waitress named Debora who shares his taste in music (and also seems quite adept at mostly one-sided conversations), Baby has even more incentive to be his own man once again, to set off toward a horizon filled with open road and endless possibility. Just when you think you’re out, though…
Yes, there are plenty of snap-zooms on spinning rims and stick shifts, hyper-kinetic tracks and pans, and those looking for bullets to fly or baddies to snarl before cracking wise won’t be disappointed, but those elements have been done better elsewhere, including in Wright’s own repertoire (see the aforementioned Hot Fuzz), and to label Baby Driver as simply an action comedy is to do a great disservice to what the writer-director has done here. With its reliance on song to convey character, as well as carefully orchestrated choreography, Baby Driver is a musical first and foremost – but it veers off in its own imaginative direction. Rarely has a film and its soundtrack been so closely linked, intertwined, and utterly dependent upon each other for something other than eliciting reflexive emotions, and the outcome generates the kind of joyful excitement reserved for witnessing the birth of something new – or at the very least a joyful evolution of a stale genre, mutated for the next generation.
What starts off like a hip music video, matching thumping guitar riffs and pounding drums with windshield wipers and skidding tires, doesn’t take long to show its true ambitions. A title sequence composed of an extended tracking shot announces Baby Driver as a different kind of song and dance, one where nobody actually bursts out into song (although some lip-syncing does occur), but the world they occupy is still one of a whimsical fairy tale. When he’s not pumping gas pedals or maneuvering through traffic with the kind of precision steering that would make the Stig raise his mask in admiration, Baby two-steps his way through life like a Disney cartoon character might, with big dreams that can only find expression in dance and the perfect playlist. The world outside reflects the notes streaming into his head, with actions like washing machines spinning, doors slamming, or guns blasting perfectly reinforcing the seemingly never-ending beats. The visual and aural synthesis creates a uniquely beautiful symphony of movement and sound that lends incredibly charming weight to elements that would otherwise be considered light as air. It’s dazzling stuff, and surprisingly it works best when the rubber isn’t burning; watching someone make a sandwich has never been more endearing.
A large part of the success of Baby Driver also depends on this sort of likability. In order for the story of a bank robber hero to work (no matter how “forced” into breaking the law he might be), Baby needs to be a moral anchor. Wright certainly imbues him with compassion for others, the reluctant thief with a heart of gold, but it’s Ansel Elgort’s vulnerability beneath the cool that completely sells the premise. Elgort is able to convey a lot with very little, tasked with communicating a variety of emotions, from puppy love to pure rage, with highly economical dialogue. He makes a tough assignment look as easy as cruise control, a fleet-footed dance of facial expression. That he wears sunglasses for a good portion of the running time makes the feat even more impressive. What’s going on behind those shades? The main characters of musicals often come across as living in a projection of their own (possibly insane) mind, and Elgort keeps that theory a mysterious possibility by giving away just right amount.
For as much as Baby Driver can make the cinema soul sing, however, Wright’s tendency to fall back on insane action while contriving hackneyed solutions to the increasing number of obstacles his hero eventually faces nearly implodes the story upon itself. A particular character swing in the third act smacks of laziness, a tacit admission that the foundation for his house of cards was too shaky to sustain it. Because everyone but Baby is so thinly-sketched (despite a cast including Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Kevin Spacey that fill in the blanks as well as anyone could be expected to), he tends to use the supporting cast as props whose script purpose could switch at the turn of an ignition, a strategy that ends up as both the problem and solution, as though the betrayal is eye-rollingly unsatisfying, the impact is lessened by a lack of a relationship with anyone other than the star. Still, it’s a risky stunt, one that could have produced a fiery explosion instead of the clunky sputtering that results.
Baby Driver floors it near the end, and because of this reluctance to stick to quieter moments, it does run out of gas by the time it reaches its final, unnecessary destination, never quite finding out what lives over the horizon. Still, it’s a fun joyride laced with brilliance that will have film lovers hearts racing, and the memory of those stirring sights along the way will keep audiences focused on the possibility of what exciting times lie ahead.
Sam Mendes Creates a Rare Cinematic Experience with ‘1917’
War movies have been a constant trend in cinema since the beginning of film. From black and white propaganda pieces during World War I and II to grand, ultra-realistic, modern dramas like Saving Private Ryan, war films have intrigued filmmakers and audiences alike for over 100 years. There’s a long list of films that have succeeded in recreating the horrors of fighting on the frontlines while telling a captivating story of heroism. Telling an emotionally gripping tale combined with some visually stunning filmmaking, 1917 can now be added to that list, and is nothing short of an incredible achievement.
Directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, and starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers during World War I that are given orders to personally deliver a message to a battalion off in the far distance. The message: to call off an attack that will result in the death of thousands, including one of the soldier’s brothers, should they fail to make it in time. Early on the two soldiers walk swiftly through crowded trenches; one of them, dragging behind yells, “Shouldn’t we think about this?” The other doesn’t reply. There’s no time to think about it. He carries on forward without looking back. The two had just been given orders, and time is now their worst enemy.
It’s this sense of urgency and persistence that drives 1917. Every minute is critical, and every moment feels dire. The two soldiers constantly push forward despite the overwhelming odds, as the life of thousands are in the lone hands of these two young men. The threat of failure is real, and 1917 never allows the audience to forget that.
Chapman and MacKay give wonderfully human performances as the main protagonists, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield. The audience gets to know the two men through little bits of conversation amid all the tension of getting closer to enemy lines. Their deepest and darkest secrets are never revealed, yet their actions provide reasons to care about them. The two men have their differences, but it’s clear that they want to help each other see the mission to its end. Their loyalty to one another and to the mission relentlessly drives them forward, and ultimately makes it easy for the audience to hope these characters succeed.
What really sets 1917 apart from other war epics is the masterful directing by Sam Mendes. The film creates the illusion throughout that the audience is watching a single continuous shot. From the first shot until the last, the focus never strays from its protagonists, allowing the audience to experience every step as it’s taken. Aside from the characters moving into a dark trench or behind a tall structure, it can be really tough to tell just how long each take is; where the director says “action” and “cut” is blurred to a point of fascination here, and though audiences have seen prolonged shots of war in past films, this is on another level. Combined with some brilliant pacing and jaw-dropping action sequences, 1917 never loses grip of its audience, as everything is seen without pause.
It’s also worth noting that every shot is elevated by a phenomenal score by Thomas Newman (who has worked with Mendes before on Skyfall). It seems that the goal here was not only to increase the intensity and drama of each scene, but also to allow the audience to feel exactly what the characters are feeling at all times. Whether the soldiers are walking through crowded trenches, cautiously cornering buildings, or taking a brief moment to catch their breath, every bit of what they’re feeling and just how their fast their hearts are pumping is translated. The music always feels natural, even in its most dramatic moments, and it deserves high praise for complimenting Mendes’ story so well.
1917 is one of the most unique movie-going experiences in recent memory. It takes the war movie genre and does something no one has ever seen before, which is extremely difficult with so many memorable war films in cinematic history. With 1917 Sam Mendes has created an unforgettable experience that needs to be seen on the biggest screen, and it deserves to be ranked among the greatest war films of all time.
With ‘Road to Perdition,’ Sam Mendes showed another side of Tom Hanks
In his long, distinguished career, one thing Tom Hanks hasn’t done a lot of on screen is dispassionately shoot people. Sure, in Bonfire of the Vanities he hit a kid with his car, and in Cloud Atlas he threw someone off the roof of the building. And yes, he played a soldier in both Saving Private Ryan and the Vietnam part of Forrest Gump, and there was a third-act gunfight in his 1989 cop/dog comedy Turner & Hooch. But the one and only time Hanks has played a full-on murderer was in Road to Perdition, director Sam Mendes’ 2002 meditation on fathers, sons, crime, and the legacies of violence.
Naturally, Hanks being Hanks, Mendes’ film positions his Michael Sullivan not as an irredeemable monster, but rather a humanized character who may not be beyond redemption (the film’s poster tagline was “Pray for Michael Sullivan.”)
Set in the 1930s and adapted from a first-rate screenplay by David Self, Road to Perdition tells the story of Sullivan, a mob enforcer in Rock Island, Ill., who works for local crime boss Rooney (Paul Newman), the man who raised him. Frequently dispatched to bump off Rooney’s rivals, Michael is committed to not allow his young son, Michael Jr. (future Arrowverse actor Tyler Hoechlin), to go down the same path in life he did.
When the young Michael witnesses his father committing a murder, it leads to a chain of tragic events that has the two Michaels on the road to Chicago to make a deal with Al Capone’s crew (in the person of his henchman, played in one scene by Stanley Tucci), and eventually on the run from a rival hitman (Jude Law.) Meanwhile, Rooney’s jealous son, Connor (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), schemes against him.
Road to Perdition attaches a violent crime plot to considerations of sin and specific references to Catholicism, which is something that directors from Martin Scorsese to Abel Ferrera have done for decades. But Mendes’ film finds a new way to tell that particular story by focusing it on the gangster’s young son.
Road to Perdition, which came out in the summer of 2003, was Mendes’ second film, and his first after 1999’s Best Picture-winning American Beauty. It’s the better film, thanks to a strong script and the work of a great cast, but more than that, it’s absolutely visually stunning in a counter-intuitive 1:33 to 1 aspect ratio. The film’s final sequences, of both the rain-drenched gunfight and the denouement on the beach, are among the most beautiful cinema of the 2000s.
The film won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Conrad L. Hall, the third of his career, although sadly Hall passed away before the Oscar was awarded; it was accepted on his behalf by his son, Conrad W. Hall. Hall’s Oscar was the only one the film won after it was nominated for six, although not including Best Picture or Best Actor.
Road to Perdition came at the front end of Hanks’ nearly 20-year Oscar nomination drought, between Cast Away and this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But Road to Perdition is an underrated Hanks performance. Even beyond all the murder, it’s very understated, and much more strong/silent than is typical of Hanks’ work. He also wears a hat most of the time, which Hanks doesn’t often do.
Paul Newman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for what would be his final on-screen role, although his voice continued to be used in Pixar’s Cars movies, even after his death. As for Daniel Craig as Connor, he’s playing a character who in today’s parlance would be called a “failson,” and it’s a role that he undoubtedly has been too big a star for just a few years later.
Sam Mendes has had something of an uneven career. His first film, American Beauty, won Best Picture, but its reputation has somewhat suffered over time for reasons fair and unfair. He’s directed great James Bond movies (Skyfall), and not-so-great ones (Spectre.) He’s made small films that were decent (Away We Go) and big ones that were disastrous (Revolutionary Road). But while he’s getting some of his best attention for 1917, which has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner, Road to Perdition stands as his most complete and satisfying work.
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
Festival de Nouveau Cinema 2019
Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.
Even before a meteor streaks out of the sky, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space firmly establishes an atmosphere of alien, otherworldly dread. Opening on a fog-shrouded forest dripping with foreboding atmosphere, Stanley evokes the spirit of the controversial author in a way few filmmakers have, and the use of direct quotes from the short story further cements this as a love-letter to Lovecraft and his work. But Color isn’t just a slavish ode to the influential writer and his cosmic horror creations; the South African director also injects just enough of himself into the film to create something that builds upon the core of Lovecraft’s story, maintaining that kernel of pulp horror while introducing elements that feel wholly personal to the filmmaker. For this and many other reasons, Color Out of Space stands out as one the best direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, and one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
The film by and large maintains the narrative core of the original, recombining elements to suit the change in medium, but staying quite faithful otherwise. Nic Cage stars as Nathan Gardner, who has moved his wife and two children to a secluded country home to get away from urban life. The Gardner family’s pastoral bliss is interrupted by a meteor that strikes their farm in the dead of night, and both their home and their very bodies begin to change soon after.
Unsurprisingly for a film with the hands of Lovecraft, Stanley, and Cage on the wheel, Color is often quite a strange experience, rife with disparate influences and odd touches. Nathan’s daughter, Lavinia, is a practicing witch, which is a story element that could only have come from Stanley, a magician himself. The Gardner family are also trying their hand at Alpaca farming — a bewildering plot element that feels like it could have been one of Cage’s notoriously eccentric fancies, right down to the brief lesson in Alpaca milking. Of course, Lovecraft’s passion for unknowable cosmic terrors is draped over all of this. There’s a wonderful atmosphere of dread and the unknown, about as pure an expression of Lovecraft as one could hope for in a contemporary setting. You’d think it would all make for a disjointed mishmash, but it all gels quite nicely, with the quirky family coming off as endearing more often than not.
Color Out of Space is one of the most engrossing genre movies this year.
There are a few distracting, odd moments, like Lavinia’s turn to self-scarring in a desperate ritual to avert disaster. It largely isn’t commented on, and her sudden appearance with arcane runes carved into her flesh doesn’t end up feeling like the important story or character beat it probably should have. Likewise, Cage’s performance is on the eccentric side, with odd mannerisms and a truly strange accent taking over as the Gardner patriarch begins to go off the deep end. But then, that’s half the fun when it’s Cage we’re talking about.
Like so much of Lovecraft’s work, Color Out of Space deals with the intrusion of the unknowable and alien into the mundane waking world. While other works have had this manifest in the form of eldritch space gods or croaking fish-people, Color instead uses an alien environment as the intruder. While Stanley clearly isn’t working with a massive budget, this idea is still used to create some stunning environments as the Gardner farm’s transformation progresses, with the climax offering some of the most engaging visuals in recent memory. There’s also some truly unsettling body horror, more gruesome and explicit than anything from the story, but an organic fit for the material. Color Out of Space is Stanley’s first feature-length fiction film in around fifteen years, and by all indications, he hasn’t lost his edge. For both fans of Lovecraft and the director’s own works, there’s much to see and love here. The visuals are breathtaking, the atmosphere sumptuous, and it’s Lovecraft to the core with just enough original madness thrown in.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
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