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Baby Driver

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Baby Driver might just be the coolest movie of 2017; a music-powered, fast-moving, hip-swiveling rock and roll action movie that gleams and shines and drives with more sheer style, grace, and aplomb than anything that’s come along in, well, it seems like forever.

The plot is basic, to be fair. Ansel Elgort’s eponymous getaway driver is in debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey, luxuriating in the script’s snappy patter), a ruthless criminal mastermind, and is forced to act as a wheelman for a revolving-door crew of armed robbers. All Baby really wants to do is take care of his deaf foster father (CJ Jones) and romance diner waitress Debora (Lily James), but the old “one last job” bit puts him on a collision course with Doc and a dangerous crew consisting of greaser party animal Buddy (Jon Hamm), his devilish girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzales), and psycho-for-hire Bats (Jamie Foxx). Cue shoot-outs, car chases (so, so many car chases), and the grooviest soundtrack of the year.

Still, it’s not what you play but how you play it, and Baby Driver is essentially one long shredding guitar solo of a film. The conceit is that Baby has tinnitus from the car accident that killed his parents as a kid, and he keeps a constant musical soundtrack pumping through his earphones to keep the buzz at bay. He’s so music-focused he keeps a range of full iPods at hand for different moods, and times his car chases to the tunes – right out the gate we get a stunning race ‘n’ chase set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bell Bottoms”, and it’s absolutely a statement of intent: you are not gonna watch this movie so much as dance to it, and love every minute of it.

It’s a musical, really, even if nobody sings all that much; director Edgar Wright and his editors,  Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, chop Bill Pope’s ’70s-noir photography to the soundtrack, tying every beat to a motion and an emotion. Even the production design gets in on the act – clock the graffiti in the street when Baby bops along to “Harlem Shuffle” on an errand for coffee. There’s thematic work being done here, too; Baby’s constant soundtrack serves to insulate him from the ugly and violent criminal world he’s being forced to inhabit, and his arc chiefly concerns him taking responsibility for his actions and the crimes he enables.

We don’t dwell on that too much though – we’re too busy having fun, and if there’s a complaint to be made about Baby Driver, it’s that there’s actually not too much going in under the hood – but is that such a crime when the candy apple red finish shines so brightly? Keep an eye on the love story instead, and the star-making turns by Elgort and James. Elgort in particular is a genius bit of casting – Wright understands that what makes Baby appealing isn’t his toughness or his skill behind the wheel, but, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, his vulnerability, and it’s the complete lack of macho posturing that makes our hero such a breath of fresh air in the action movie landscape.

Compare the obnoxious, confrontational style of Foxx’s gangsta, or even Jon Hamm’s “last of the old school outlaws” wild card; perhaps the most interesting subtext here is Baby Driver‘s tiredness of traditional models of masculinity, and the most transgressive thing it does is posit the idea that it’s much cooler to be a nice guy than a loose cannon killer. Baby is, we’re told repeatedly, a good kid with a good heart, and even (most) of the people who wind up trying to kill him hold him in esteem and affection.

That’s there if you want it, but if you just want to groove on the gorgeous aesthetic, that’s cool too. Baby Driver marks a turning point for Edgar Wright as a filmmaker; having developed his skills making brilliant visually striking comedies for years, from Spaced through to The World’s End, this flick feels like the opening riff of the next phase of his career – Track One, Side Two, if you will. It’s an absolute blast that will leave you grinning as you leave the cinema, and humming the soundtrack for days afterwards.

 
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The Villainess

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Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) is arrested by Korean police after having single-handedly murdered 60 men in a violent revenge spree. Taken on by her country’s intelligence agency, she is promised her freedom in return for 10 years’ service as a government-controlled assassin. Once in the field, however, her violent criminal past returns to haunt her.

The Villainess, the latest film from rising directorial star Jung Byung-gil, is a profoundly stylish and bluntly violent action thriller. When screened at the Cannes Film Festival a few weeks ago it was received with a four-minute standing ovation. It is not difficult to see why: while the film adheres a relatively formulaic storyline, its action sequences are some of the most original and effective I have seen in some time. Jung uses a combination of lurid colourful lighting, fish-eye lenses and editing tricks to bring the viewer closer to the fighting than I think any film has managed before. It is blindingly chaotic, and in some key moments visually incomprehensible, but that all seems to just further amp up the kinetic sense of energy and rage. Whether it is a first-person perspective brawl down a corridor, a sword-wielding duel on motorcycles or a geisha-costumed knife fight, the action is tremendously fast, bloody and effective.

Jung spaces out the action quite carefully across a two hour film, using the rest of his time tell a slickly developed but rather conventional story. The premise of the film is effectively Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990), a film already remade in the USA (Point of No Return, 1993) and Hong Kong (Black Cat, 1991) and adapted twice to television (in 1997 and 2010). There are other influences as well, notably fellow Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, and while it is clear this is a fairly derivative story it is well performed throughout. Flashbacks peppered throughout the film illuminate Sook-hee’s tragic past, and inform her actions in the present. They are initially somewhat disorientating, and not particularly well signaled, but as the film goes on events and characters begin to fall into place and start making a rough kind of sense.

Kim Ok-bin is excellent in the lead role, successfully juggling the demands of a fairly emotional and melodramatic story with the rigours of all the fight sequences. Featuring alongside her are Bang Sung-jun as Hyun-soo – a fellow agent assigned to seduce her and monitor her behaviour – and Shin Ha-kyun as Joong-sang – the criminal who took an orphaned Sook-hee in, trained her, and ultimately married her. Both are very effective, using a broad cocky charm and a cool, understated demeanour respectively. A real highlight is Kim Seo-hyung as Kwon-sook, Sook-hee’s ice-cold government overseer. She gives a comparatively subtle performance, given the emotional mayhem undertaken around her, but does so with great amounts of depth and authority.

While it seems inevitable that conversations about The Villainess will dwell on its bravado action scenes, it is important to appreciate just how strong the performances and the direction of the rest of the film actually is. It may tell a familiar story, but it tells it exceptionally well. If you are a fan of action movies or Korean cinema, The Villainess is a must-see.

 
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Transformers: The Last Knight

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And suddenly it all became clear: this was camp.

Transformers: The Last Knight is either one of the worst films ever produced by a major studio, or a future schlock classic that will stand alongside Plan 9 From Outer Space, Robot Monster, and The Room – the difference being that while those examples were made by lunatics who thought they were making great art, Michael Bay has here tipped his hand, and we can now be in on the joke. Our mistake all along was in taking these goddamn things seriously, it seems; measured against the standards of classical Hollywood filmmaking, the Transformers series – Revenge of the Fallen onwards, at least – are abominable wastes of time, money, and effort. Viewed as a knowing parody (not satire, mind you – if there’s any Starship Troopers-style political allegory here, it is remarkably elusive) of action movie excess, this latest addition to the franchise is kind of amazing.

It’s the only sane and charitable reason such a terrible piece of cinema got this far. The Last Knight leaves behind recent large-scale failures like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and The Mummy, like they were standing still, gasping in its dust, while it pops a wheelie and its horn plays a dubstep remix of “La Cucuracha”. It’s bad, not just in a pedantic or nitpicky way – although if you have any knowledge of history, art history, geography, nuclear physics, astrophysics, plain old everyday physics, archaeology, architecture, small unit tactics, hydrodynamics, and the basic nature of the human soul, you better strap the hell in – but as a narrative, leaping all over the place, compressing time and shaking up spatial relationships like it was filmed at the Event Horizon of a black hole. At one point Marky Mark makes a big deal out of leaving all his friends behind to jump on a plane to England by himself. When he gets there, Bumblebee is suddenly with him. Presumably he swam. Or teleported. It still doesn’t explain why the film’s version of Britain, where much of the action takes place, appears to be maybe five miles across, judging by travel time.

Teleportation is possible – characters exhibit new traits as the plot demands all the time. Hot Rod (a new Autobot voiced by Omar Sy) whips out a gun that can slow down time. Bumblee’s voicebox is still broken – right up until it suddenly isn’t. Marky has a magic disappearing sword. It’s incredible – there are times when you’ll swear you blacked out, because some new element will crop up and surely, surely, they’ve taken a second or so to explain it. God knows the film stops for long stretches of just risible dialogue at enough points.

Much of that dialogue is delivered by Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins and Academy Award watcher Mark Wahlberg, and they do okay. Hopkins is clearly having an absolute ball, having no illusions about the type of film he’s in and barking his lines with glee. Wahlberg is Wahlberg, the hero of the story – it’s now a longstanding tradition that Transformers movies aren’t about Transformers. Bay clearly has no affinity for the robots- but he also doesn’t care for people much, either. His ideal film would involve nothing but spinning tracking shots of non-talking vehicles filmed against a sunset, with a lot of particulate matter in the air. For three hours.

Here, though, he’s lumbered with a plot that he must at least pay lip service to, much to his clear disgruntlement. The story, credited to Akiva Goldsman, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Ken Nolan, pushes in two directions. There’s the problem at hand, which sees Autobot leader Optimus Prime pull a Dominic Toretto and turn against his comrades – which would be quite a twist if that particular hero of a million childhoods hadn’t been portrayed as violent, arrogant, unpredictable and downright murderous for the last three movies. Prime returns to Earth (just go with it if you’ve blocked out the last movie) as the herald of robot goddess Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who wants to destroy the Earth for reasons that would be spoilers if such things mattered here, but we’ll defer to the delicate sensibilities poor, deluded Transformers fans, may Quintessa have mercy on their soul.

This leads into the other narrative thread, designed to expand the Transformers Cinematic Universe in a number of franchise-friendly ways. Essentially, the goofy change-o-bots have been here all along, participating in human history since the time of King Arthur (don’t even start) right through to at least World War II, and somehow the wider world never noticed, despite Tony Hopkins owning a room of artworks that basically look like this. He owns them because he’s a member of a secret society called the – wait for it – Witwiccans, who have worked alongside the Transformers for over a millennium, hiding their existence from the waking world. And let’s face it, that basic conceit – the Illuminati, but with giant robots – is kind of beautiful in its audacious stupidity, even if its only narrative payoff is a search for a MacGuffin that feels like what you’d get if you asked Koko the Gorilla to rewrite The Da Vinci Code. At least we get a sassy robot butler out of the deal in the form of Cogman, Tony’s mouthy manservant.

Previous elements are re-introduced without much rhyme or reason, including Josh Duhamel’s army dude, now working for an anti-robot task force called TRF. He’s just kind of there, flipping from protagonist to antagonist depending on how long it’s been since something blew up, but it’s interesting to note that, following Sector 7, N.E.S.T., and Cemetery Wind, that’s four different shadowy Transformer-hunting teams this series has seen over five movies. Also just kind of there is John Turturro’s Simmons, for no good reason except that Bay seems to be collecting cast members from The Big Lebowski; John Goodman reprises his voice role as Autobot soldier Hound, and Steve Buscemi crops up as a weird robot scavenger. Do not be surprised if Jeff Bridges turns up as a toaster or a waffle iron next movie.

We also get the Decepticons back, with Megatron (Frank Welker, not Hugo Weaving this time) and co. introduced into the plot because apparently it’s easier for the military to cut a deal with a team of towering metal sociopaths than engage in a dialogue with the Autobots. The plot moves as though the basic question the screenwriters kept asking themselves was “What actions, however implausible and unmotivated, will lead to the worst possible outcome for all concerned,” and this particular wrinkle is just one of many instances.

The whole thing winds up in a massive, FX-heavy, literally earth-shaking climax that would be impressive if it weren’t so patently ludicrous, and leaves the next film with almost nowhere to go in terms of scale except, say, blowing up the sun (don’t put it past ‘em). If you’re turned on by the best work the rendering farms of South Korea can provide, you’re in for a good time here, and a three headed robot dragon is always a good time, generally speaking.

But here’s the thing – The Last Knight is ridiculous, so obviously, unmistakably aware of its own crass and bombastic nature, that it’s rarely unenjoyable. It’s fascinating: the way almost every character is inhumanly mean to every other character until the time comes for them to pull at some heartstrings. The way Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager’s essential function is as a salve to the shattered machismo of American men – at one point Hopkins actually lays out that it doesn’t matter if he’s an unemployed, perpetually broke loser with a dead wife and an absent daughter, he can still be a hero – a bit of business so on the nose it simply cannot be anything but deliberate. The unmotivated camera moves, the golden hour light, the way explosions only hurt exactly one character out of the dozens who get blown up (Shockwave exists in this universe, but shockwaves don’t). The stentorian tones of Prime voice Peter Cullen mouthing the most awful, hackneyed lines about heroism and brotherhood, even though seconds earlier he’d been doing his level best to remove his best mate’s head. The sheer, money-sucking, egregious excess of the whole enterprise – in its own weird way, it’s admirable. And hilarious.

Unless you take it seriously for a second, which Bay and the boys clearly don’t. Transformers: The Last Knight is clearly Michael Bay seeing how far he can push his long-running, multi-billion dollar savage indictment of blockbuster cinema. Let’s hope it makes a trillion dollars, just to see what he does next.

 

 
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Preacher Season 2

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The first season of Preacher suffered from a few teething problems as the show struggled to tell new viewers what it was and, perhaps more crucially, fans of the source comics what it was not. Those expecting a slavishly faithful reproduction of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s ’90s Vertigo series were sorely disappointed, but what the small screen Preacher got right was the tone of the piece. While narratively the show was spinning its wheels for a long time (about four episodes of S1 are essential viewing, out of a total of 10), we got a good sense of who the characters are and what their world is about. We’re invested in the titular two-fisted Texan preacher, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper); his gun-toting ex-lover, Tulip (Ruth Negga, frequently the MVP here); and his drug-addled Irish vampire best mate, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun). And finally, we’re off to pursue the main thrust of the plot, with the trio on the road across America to (literally) find God, who is absent without leave.

Season two opens with a bang – several bangs, in fact, as a car chase with the local constabulary (complete with a fun sing-along soundtrack – that’s a surprise worth keeping back) turns into the first of a number of stunningly bloody shoot-outs courtesy of the Saint of Killers (Graham McTavish), the unkillable gunslinger that’s been sicced onto Jesse and co. Gorehounds are in for a treat, as are comics fans – the show’s depiction of the carnage the Saint wreaks is on par with what we saw on the page – which is to say, an utter bloodbath, complete with gaping wounds, severed limbs and a body count equivalent to a bad day at the Somme.

Plotwise, the first two episodes set us up for a trip to New Orleans, as we learn that the errant God is apparently a fan of jazz, prompting our heroes to head for the Big Easy. Before that, we get a couple of side missions. One is enormous fun, involving an Indian casino (East Indian, not Native American, in a cute twist) and a catch-up with the hapless angel Fiore (Tom Brooke). Any plotline that involves an angel and a vampire doing speedballs together in a tacky hotel suite is okay by us.

The other, definitely on the more problematic side of the line, sees Custer and company cross paths with a backwoods “biblical scholar” with a penchant for keeping “strayed” parishioners in a cage. That the show never condemns this (and Jesse de facto condones it, even though Tulip is aghast) hits a bit of a weird note, and that is starting to be a recurring issue with Preacher – successfully pushing buttons for fun and profit takes a defter hand than the series has yet really demonstrated, and what was acceptable in the comics’ ’90s heyday does not necessarily fly in 2017.

That’s a quibble, though – so far Preacher Season 2 is an anarchic blast of violent fun, weird metaphysics and general gonzo goofiness. If they can maintain the pitch for the next eight episodes, we’re in for a fun ride.