Monday, July 3, 2017

JOYRIDE: a review of "Baby Driver"

Written and Directed by Edgar Wright 
**** (four stars)

May the Gods of Cinema forever bless Edgar Wright!

As recently as yesterday, I have been struck by articles pondering the end of the Director as we know it, essentially reducing cinematic artists to hired hands randomly picked to work for the desires of the true visionaries, so to speak, the Producers.

Now, truth be told, in some respects I can understand the hows and whys Producers may be more in control than the actual Director, especially when using movies to build interconnected film universes. In those situations, consistency within the brand is paramount. But that being said, to have an industry where movies are only created to devise mere product therefore pushing any potential filmmaking artists to the fringes if not out of the system altogether, it is a potential future that seriously troubles me, for without those visionaries, the movies will undoubtedly be doomed to becoming uninspired, homogenized, ultimately disposable and worst of all, anonymous.

This is why when we have a filmmaker of the caliber and breed of Writer/Director Edgar Wright, we should rejoice, for when he finds himself behind the camera, the movies look, sound and feel like no one else's as they are so often dazzling, head spinning, propulsive, eye popping and outstanding pieces of art, that I would truly fear a day in which we would not be able to experience what his seemingly endlessly creative mind has dreamed up.

With "Baby Driver," Edgar Wright more than continues his personal winning streak, which has included nothing less than the likes of "Shaun Of The Dead" (2004), "Scott Pilgrim Vs.The World" (2010) and "The World's End" (2013). I think he has quite possibly topped himself while also helming one of the very best films of 2017 by a mile.

Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" stars Ansel Elgort as the titular, reticent, headphone earbud wearing getaway driver whose devotion to the music he blasts into his ears not only drowns out the tinnitus he received from a childhood tragedy, it provides him with a supreme focus and connection to the car and his reflexes as he speeds away from one heist after another.

Baby is under the employ of the crime kingpin named Doc (Kevin Spacey), and he often runs alongside a collective of increasingly psychotic criminals, including the hotheaded Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Elza Gonzalez) and her husband, the ferocious Buddy (Jon Hamm), all the while earning money which he squirrels away in the tiny abode he shares with his deaf and disabled foster Father, Joseph (CJ Jones).

While visiting a local diner one morning between getaway jobs, Baby makes the acquaintance of the lovely waitress Debora (Lily James), with whom he quickly strikes up a friendship, bonds over their shared devotion to music and falls in love.

Yet, when one last job after what was presumably Baby's last job threatens to collide with his new plans for escaping his life of crime for a blissfully endless journey of love, music and the road with Debora, he is forced to face the music as never before.

Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" has fully re-invented the car chase/crime film/action thriller and ingeniously re-fashioned it as the most lavish, deliriously inventive movie musical you are bound to see for quite some time, and yes, that even means you "La La Land" (2016).  The very best thing that I can say about this film is the following: once it was over, there was noting else that I wanted to do but to walk to the back of the ticket line to buy a ticket and see it all over again immediately.

Now certainly, as far as plots go, the storyline of "Baby Driver" is as old as the hills. But, trust me, it is only utilized as a starting point from which Edgar Wright and his superlative cast and crew can all take a deep dive into the whirlpool of Wright's inventive imagination as he re-contextualizes all of the chases, crashes, shootouts and mayhem with the expertly conceived choreography of a major movie musical.

Dear readers, I just have to explain at this time that after watching movies avidly for 40 years there are things that I need never need to ever see again and one of those cinematic constants is the car chase. Certainly, when it is done well, car chase sequences can be thrilling and the very best that I have seen are still etched into my memories and excitedly so.

I think of the truck chase in Steven Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981) or the extended road rage sequences in George Miller's "The Road Warrior" (1981) and "Mad Max: Fury Road" (2015). Or how about the elegant motorcycle chase in Jean-Jacques Beineix's "Diva" (1981), or the wrong way freeway chase in William Friedkin's brutal "To Live And Die In L.A." (1985) or the dazzling freeway extravaganza in The Wachowski's "The Matrix Reloaded" (2003). And there is no way that I could write about movie car chases and not mention the granddaddy of them all, in my humble opinion, John Landis' "The Blues Brothers" (1980), a film which truly took car chase pyrotechnics to a transcendent level. With "Baby Driver," Edgar Wright has now joined this exclusive company as he has made such a tired sequence in the movies feel almost as if I am seeing it for the first time.

As with all of his films thus far--especially with "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World"--I wondered just how oh how Wright would be able to keep up his creative momentum for the entire duration of the film as it felt to be so impossible. Within the film's first 10-15 minutes or so, we have been blown backwards from a ferociously paced getaway car chase plus another sequence where Baby walks the morning streets of Atlanta to obtain four coffees for his partners in crime. And throughout it all, the movements and motions of the people and objects are all in exquisitely timed sequence to the songs that Baby pumps through his earbuds...and I mean absolutely everything! Gunshots occur right ON THE BEAT. Car skids and slides flow right with the songs. Just even watch how characters walk from time to time and once all is said and done, it is as if Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" was imagined as the cinematic love child of John Woo and Busby Berkeley and again, never for a minute designed to assault your senses and bludgeon you but to whisk you away in two-fisted, speed of light and sound entertainment.

From even conceiving of a film such as this, Edgar Wright more than deserves any kudos and awards that happen to flow his way. And for that matter, he is assisted tremendously through the efforts of his superlative team from Editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, Cinematographer Bill Pope, most definitely Choreographer Ryan Heffington and for the love of Pete, the entire Sound Department has more than earned every industry award they can get their collective hands upon!!

Of course, you cannot have a musical without the music and Wright had loaded his film from end to end with a wildly eclectic mix of 44 songs, a tactic that instantly places him to the front ranks of filmmakers who utilize songs to serve as an additional character within the film and not solely as sonic wallpaper. Over the course of his previous films, Wright has already displayed his impeccable taste, placing him the same league as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Cameron Crowe, the late John Hughes and Jonathan Demme and most notably, alongside his contemporaries with Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Quentin Tarantino. But now, with music serving as the film's engine, so to speak, Wright is able to delve even deeper and more extensively into the music of  his mind.

Now much has been written and celebrated about the soundtracks that augment James Gunn's "Guardians Of The Galaxy" series (2014/2017) and trust me, I am not about to rain on your collective parades if you cherish them.  For me, I was most underwhelmed. Not with the songs for I love them as much as you do. But, to me, within the interstellar context of those movies, they felt to be so obvious and even safe instead of creatively innovative.

I bring up Gunn's films as his work shares a certain conceptual theme with "Baby Driver" as both Gunn and Wright have conceived of youthful anti-heroes  mourning lost Mothers and have maintained emotional connections through the music they are each obsessed with. But where Gunn's choices felt to be market researched to me, Wright's choices felt distinctly personalized and feverishly hand-picked, making the conceptual connective tissue carry a much more significant weight to the proceedings.

With all of the action, thrills, razzle-dazzle and the music, I again applaud Edgar Wright for ensuring that Baby Driver" would exist as so much more than an exercise in style--no matter how high flying of style it is. Wright indeed has a story to tell and some larger themes to carry along with it and primarily, he has used "Baby Driver" as another exploration of his consistent theme of male arrested development.

Just as Shaun possesses an unhealthy attachment to his prized neighborhood bar as well as commitment to his longtime girlfriend in "Shaun Of The Dead," and Gary King's alcoholism and desperate sense of nostalgia for his lost youth sits at the core of "The World's End," Edgar Wright utilizes the music of "Baby Driver" to signify what is ultimately Baby's fuel and his crutch. Baby's rigid dependence upon music serves as a means for him to simultaneously connect and retreat from the world around him, thus blurring his overall sense of reality, which is finally tested once Debora enters his life and the savagery of the criminals around him at last begin to rattle his sense of humanity.

In some ways, I think that Baby comes closet to the character of Scott Pilgrim regarding the level of disconnect from the real world as Scott's narcissism was presented through his choice of viewing life as being one endless video game as a protective measure from real, human relationships and the inevitable emotional wounds that occur.

With "Baby Driver," I loved how Baby carried this tendency to essentially channel whatever emotions he carries into the technology he surrounds himself with. From cars, certainly, to the music he pours into his ears and then, to even the conversations he obsessively records and then re-contextualizes into his own music, therefore reducing human beings and relationships into song lyrics, recording equipment, instruments, synthetic beats and a case of cassette tapes.

And you know, just as a casual thought, I am curious if some of you who see this film would argue if Baby mentally exists somewhere upon the autism spectrum. Wondering...Yes, I may be completely off base here but even so, "Baby Driver" does indeed lend itself to such interpretation and that only adds to the fun. Oh, I have gone on long enough and I certainly do not wish to delay you any longer from racing out to go see this film, this restless, relentless and rapturous film that only made me want to rejoice.

Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" is exhibit A evidence of precisely why we still need to have actual Directors when it comes to our cinema. The ones who have the ability to harness their vision and craft it so exquisitely through the language of film giving us movie experiences to celebrate and cultivate as we receive a perspective that we have not heard before and enlivening the movies in the process.

Just look at this year alone as we are indeed drowning in superhero movies but it took Patty Jenkins to crack the code and make a transcendent one in "Wonder Woman." Look at what Jordan Peele accomplished with the horror genre with "Get Out," a film we really have not ever seen before. The individuals have the potential to be cinematic artists to carry movies further into the future and I believe that these figures should not only be celebrated and appreciated, they should be more than encouraged to continue reshaping what the movies can actually be and inspiring us all to boot.

Edgar Wright is unquestionably a filmmaker of that caliber, whose euphoric aesthetic has left me increasingly ecstatic over the years and I sincerely hope that he is able to continue making the types of films that leave me happily slack jawed and breathless. If there is anything negative I can say about "Baby  Driver," is that now, I'll have to wait all over again and for however many years for Edgar Wright's next film.

But until then, I cannot wait to get behind the wheel of this film again and again and again.

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