Blade Runner 2049

BRDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriters: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Ana de Armas, and Jared Leto

Cells. Cells interlinked within cells – interlinked. Do they keep you in a cell? Cells. Interlinked. Within cells interlinked.

Yes, that’s a poor representation of the baseline test used by the LAPD to ascertain whether K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant blade runner, is developing dangerous emotions in the new film Blade Runner 2049.

That’s right, I said “replicant” “blade runner;” one and the same. 30 years of degradation will do that to a society. If you remember back to the 1982 original film, you’ll recall that blade runner units are special police squads tasked with locating and retiring (killing) rogue biological manufactured creatures called replicants that were used “off-world” to develop colonies in the early 21st century. These replicants soon mutinied against their human masters, and those who managed to escape to Earth were hunted down by blade runners. Now, 30 years later in the year 2049, the Tyrell corporation responsible for the original development of replicants is bankrupt and has been absorbed by tech giant, the Wallace corporation. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has resurrected the replicant, creating an entirely new breed capable of obeying humans, which allows them to serve at every level of society, even as blade runners, working with the police to help retire older rogue models that continue to persist.  In fact, Wallace also manufactures holographic companions for these new obedient replicants, allowing him to enjoy the double consumer bump of producing consumers who consume their producers’ products! I can picture Jeff Bezos at Amazon headquarters considering a way to get Alexa to want to buy her own Alexa!

Blade Runner 2049 opens with a magnificent sequence where K, one of these new Wallace replicant blade runners is on a mission to track down and retire an old rogue nexus-model replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). While at Morton’s, K discovers the buried remains of a deceased female replicant whose death is evidenced by signs of complications from an emergency C-section; no replicant has ever been capable of reproduction. K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders K to destroy the remains, and track down and retire the child for fear that public knowledge that replicants can reproduce may start a war. Conversely, Wallace is made privy to the discovery and desires to capture the offspring in the hopes conducting tests on the anomaly in order to create a self-sustaining replicant force that could increase his production off-world exponentially. Now K is caught in the middle between obeying his superiors and facing the reality that replicants are “more human than human.” Suffice it to say, his baseline gets all messed up.

K’s search for the replicant child makes up most of the second half of the 164 minute

screen_shot_2017-02-24_at_2
Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049

masterpiece, and his journey expands the world we remember from the 1982 film beyond LA, and also leads him to some familiar faces we recall from the original, most notably Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has been hiding out in Las Vegas…or what’s left of it.

 

Blade Runner 2049 dethrones Baby Driver as the best film of 2017 so far. This is also the rare sequel that improves upon its original. Villenuve has been on the cusp of breaking out for some time now. He first arrived on my radar with the 2013 film Prisoners, which I thought was outstanding. That film also marked his first collaboration with his now go-to cinematographer, Roger Deakins, famous for his many films with the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes. Deakins lends his lens to Villenueve for the third time here, and I think it’s his best effort yet. The visual landscapes, environments, and overall immersion experienced with this film are

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Ana de Armas as Joi, an adaptive computer hologram companion in Blade Runner 2049.

breathtaking. Do yourself a favor and see Blade Runner 2049 on the big screen. In his previous film, Arrival, Villenueve used cinematographer Bradford Young, and Young received an Oscar nod for it. It turned out, while Villenueve was wrapping up Arrival, he was already working and storyboarding Blade Runner 2049 with Deakins. I mentioned in my Oscar predictions last year that I was excited to see Villenueve was coming off Arrival and going right into Blade Runner 2049 with Deakins. I now can comfortably predict that Deakins will receive his 13th Oscar nomination for this film, and, I also expect, his first win!

Blade Runner 2049 is a visual achievement, but it is also a triumph of science fiction and exploration into the flawed emotionality of the human being. Villenueve and original screenwriter, Hampton Fancher deepen the themes and ideas introduced in the 1982 original, creating a superb overall film that demands repeat viewings. A

Blade Runner 2049 is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 44 minutes.

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American Made

AMDirector: Doug Liman

Screenwriter: Gary Spinelli

Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, and Jesse Plemons

I had an idea once for a movie where I’d pluck out a completely inconsequential character from a well-known film, and then base an entire story around that character. What I love most about this idea is that the film I write would stand firmly on its own two feet with no overt mention to the protagonist’s connection to the larger, famous work. Only those who pick up the subtle clues would ever even be able to connect them.

I had a similar experience watching American Made. I’ll admit that I am not up to date on my drug cartel history, but I do watch and love the Netflix series, Narcos. So as I’m sitting, watching, and enjoying Tom Cruise’s new film American Made, I suddenly start thinking, “I know the name Barry Seal. Wasn’t he in an episode of Narcos?” And then two things happened: 1. I felt what it would be like to have that revelation of realizing a frivolous character from one story is now the subject of another, and 2. I realized I knew everything that was going to happen in this movie. I loved realizing the first thing, but I was not as excited about realizing the second one.

The good news is I love Tom Cruise, and he made up for all the predictability that followed. So it turns out, yes, this is the story of Barry Seal – they guy from Season 1, Episode 4 of Narcos. Seal, played by Tom Cruise is a TWA pilot, who as America is in the grips of the Cold War during the 1970s catches the attention of a CIA agent, Monty Schafer (Domhnhall Gleeson). Seal has been smuggling Cuban cigar exiles into the states as a means of additional income, and Schafer sees Seal’s activity not so much as punishable but as exploitative. Schafer offers Seal a chance to work secretly for the government, taking reconnaissance photos of South American guerilla camps and delivering bribes to Nicaraguan and Panamanian politicians and military personnel for information.

Of course, the CIA doesn’t pay much, and Barry wants nothing more than to make a great life for his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and kids. That being said, it doesn’t take long for the Columbian drug cartel headed by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar), and an up-and-coming-kid Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) to take notice of an American spy plane running in and out of South America on a pretty regular basis. The cartel sees Seal’s activity not so much as punishable but as exploitative…rinse, wash, repeat (see what I did there?).

The movie spends the rest of its focus watching Seal bounce back and forth between running drugs for the cartel and informing on “Commies” for the CIA. Meanwhile Seal just keeps getting richer, and richer and richer.

Still, the movie doesn’t jive like I wanted it to. I think director Doug Liman and screenwriter, Gary Spinelli bet on the fact that most people who see this film wouldn’t have seen episode 4 of Narcos. I also think they knew Tom Cruise in a plane is something people enjoy. Additionally, this marks the second collaboration between Liman and Cruise after 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, or was it called Live Die Repeat? No one knows for sure. Anyway, that was a great movie and Liman directed the hell out of it, a film which was basically Groundhog Day meets Terminator and has Cruise reporting to Brenden Gleeson. So why couldn’t Doug Liman direct the hell out of a movie that is basically The Wolf of Wall Street meets Top Gun where Cruise is reporting to Dohmnall Gleeson? He can and he pretty much does. Liman gets a great performance out of Cruise, and a little birdy tells me there are at least two more Liman/Cruise joints in the works. This is good news.

What doesn’t quite jive for me in this film are the circumstances, a deficit that I think mostly falls on the writing. There is a lot of coincidence and shrugging off of impossible situations in American Made. At one moment Seal is in a Columbian prison as government agents are about to raid his New Orleans home with his family asleep inside. The next moment, Seal and his family are living in Arkansas and they own an airplane hanger. It’s not quite that sudden, but it’s pretty close. Gleeson’s Agent Schafer character is also oddly underdeveloped and while I understand his persona is supposed to be mysterious, he seems contradictory and far more dramatic than necessary. Lastly, Jesse Plemons is in this movie as a local sheriff, and I have to assume there is a cache of great footage of him on the cutting room floor somewhere because what’s left of his character is barely an arc.

All in all, Cruise continues to entertain and gives more than just an action-packed performance. In a fall season where all there is to see is It for the 10th time, this is a worthy film that has far more high points than low ones. B

American Made is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

The Worst Movie I’ve Ever Seen…

badcowork_introWith the backlash and outrage aimed at mother! this past weekend, my wife casually asked me, “What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen?” As a movie critic, I was surprised at how I didn’t really have an answer to this question at the ready. I generally try to only see movies that I hope I’ll like, and while I am occasionally disappointed, I usually can find some aspect that salvages the experience from being completely worthless. However, her question prompted me to delve into my cinematic history, parse through the depths, and once and for all recognize one film as the worst one I’ve ever seen.

Now I want to be clear, since I try to avoid the bad ones, I have not seen classically hated movies like Gigli, Troll 2, or Battlefield Earth, so they cannot be the worst movie I’ve seen. Still, I’ve seen a lot of movies, and like any serious undertaking, this decision requires some preparation and a few ground rules. Obviously, when discussing any medium of art and expression, the overall reaction is entirely subjective. Therefore, I need to determine what it is to me that makes a movie terrible. After racking my brain, I’ve determined that the following 4 factors are critical in determining a film’s lack of value.

  1. Story – If the story is contrived, poorly written, implausible, or a combination of these things, then the movie is in trouble. A great story can salvage bad acting, but bad acting cannot save a bad story. Writing and originality factor into this piece of criteria as well.
  2. Acting – Yes, acting does play a major role in determining a movie’s greatness. So much of how we interact, empathize, and respond to a movie has to do with how we project our values and opinions onto the people playing the parts.
  3. Dullness – This is perhaps the most important factor of all. Movies can be good-bad or bad-bad. The difference has to do with dullness. If a movie is dull with poor pacing and extended periods of just nothing going on, then the movie is doomed. Many interior sub-areas influence this category including music, directing and editing.
  4. Technical – Sometimes a bad movie can be saved by its technical achievements or visual aspect. Additionally, sometimes a good movie can be mired in terrible technical blunders, mistakes, and shortcomings. And worst of all, sometimes a bad move can be made dreadful when the technical pieces put the last nail in the coffin.

Additionally, there are a few movies that I hated so much that I turned them off or walked out on them. Ironically, those films will not be considered in my deliberation since I never saw them in their entirety. For the record, this is a rare occurrence with me, as I prefer to see films through regardless of how bad they are, and the films I turned off or walked out on would likely not have displaced my ultimate choice for worst movie I ever saw.

Now that I have my criteria in place, I am ready to reveal the worst movie I’ve ever seen; however, if you know The People’s Critic, then you know I can’t do this without making it a list. So I give to you, The People’s Critic’s Five Worst Movies I’ve Ever Seen (by the way, I’ve seen mother! and it’s nowhere near this list).

5.  A Good Day to Die Hard

Die HardSo what went wrong? First of all, no more catch phrases or cliches. “Yippee Ki-Yay” is grandfathered in, but now we’re reminded that John McClane is “old” and “on vacation” at least ten times. This repetition serves no purpose except to go for a cheap laugh, but you’ll never hear the laughter over most of the theater slapping their hands to their foreheads in disgust. Furthermore, this installment takes place in Russia. In one scene, John is handed a tour book by his daughter, Idiot’s Guide to Russia. Clearly, it was the same book Skip Woods used to write the screenplay because the film exposes Russia’s traffic issues, introduces characters named Viktor, Yuri, and Anton, and its climax seals the cliché deal by taking place at Chernobyl. Oh, did I mention Yuri is introduced playing chess, so we know he’s a smart Russian? Disappointing stuff.

Then there’s the action. Atrocious sound stage garbage. Action confined in one setting for ten minutes with no real danger becomes dull in 30 seconds. The previous four films did not feel so confined to sound-stages as this one does (even though the first two had McClane trapped in a building and an airport respectively), and it ruins any tension or fun.

Finally, if one wants to make a sequel, then make a sequel. What happened to Bonnie Bedelia as McClane’s now ex-wife, Holly? Where’s good ole’ Reginald VelJohnson as Sgt. Powell? Why introduce all of those fun tech-geeks in Live Free or Die Hard only to strand them in that film? Screenwriters, listen up; these character actors will sign up if the story is there!

4.  Only God Forgives

Only God ForgivesNot a lot happens in Only God Forgives as several scenes are composed of people just moving around, albeit moving around slowly and deliberately.  Many scenes are composed of one-shots (one character in the frame) that last 30 seconds or more!  This results in manufacturing the slowest 89 minute film in recent memory.

There is not much good to be said for the film.  Ryan Gosling is practically emotionless, giving the blandest performance of his career, although clearly steered by director, Nicholas Winding Refn.

Winding Refn’s directorial choices are certainly strange from time to time.  With virtually no exposition, his film complicates matters by introducing confusing segments of “dream-like” scenarios (most of which include red dragon wallpaper) that may or may not be real. Furthermore, a major talking point for this film is its use of violence.  Only God Forgives appears to be an instrument for Winding Refn to release his own personal anger against spirituality, against God, against mothers – it’s an angry film.  Much of this anger manifests as violence and while occasionally off screen, two rather brutal scenes do not hold back. These scenes drip of anger but offer little redeeming quality (See No Country for Old Men for a film that accomplishes the task of personifying wrath).

Only God Forgives is a mostly failed attempt at expounding on the undertakings of an angry God.  Instead of making a film that analyzes and examines anger, he has made one that simply exudes his own.

3.  Savages

savaIs Savages pulp? Yes. Is Savages fiction? Oh God I hope so. But Savages is definitely not Pulp Fiction, despite its desperate attempt to be, including casting John Travolta. Savages is a gritty, hard-core examination of the cut-throat high pressure, high stakes game of marijuana cartels. Wait, what? Marijuana cartels? Oliver Stone crafts a screenplay, with help from Don Winslow who penned the source material, that does explain this unorthodox cartel’s extremely violent nature. The story is actually very simple. Young marijuana entrepreneurs gain the attention of a major drug cartel who kidnaps their shared girlfriend in order to force their hand to deal with them. Those entrepreneurs are played by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson. The shared girlfriend who drags her nails across the chalkboard with flat acting and dreadful voiceover is played lumberingly by Blake Lively. Why they want her back is the film’s biggest mystery. Her character, O, is named after Hamlet’s deranged, suicidal lost love and she hints from the first line of the movie that she may not be alive at the end, providing some powerful wishful thinking. The biggest problem with Savages is the same with most Oliver Stone movies that don’t work, its agenda. Now, this time there is no political agenda; instead it’s a “look how edgy I am” agenda. This agenda is completely fulfilled by putting the viewers out of their misery with one of the worst endings in recent memory.

I could go on about what doesn’t work in this movie, but I feel the point is made. Instead, I’ll quickly mention the things that do work. Benicio Del Toro’s character is introduced with brutal gusto. Also, the film is mostly in focus, even during the ridiculous number of close ups. That’s about it.

2.  Freddy Got Fingered

Freddy90s “comedian” Tom Green wrote and directed this mess, and I fell for it. I was 20 or 21 and Tom Green was kind of still happening, so I went to see it with some friends. Green was known for being a bit of a stunt comedian where he’d play pranks on unsuspecting people. Not bad, not great. However, as his popularity grew, his stunts became more gross-out related; queue Freddy Got Fingered, which demonstrates the rule that when gross-out goes wrong, it goes way, way wrong. Pink Flamingos, There’s Something About Mary, South Park, these films work on a subversive level, but Tom Green went for derivative and there he will sit for eternity. There are no words for the feeling you experience while watching the protagonist of a major studio film cackle wildly while manually stimulating a male elephant. No words. I hated this movie to the point that for a moment when my wife asked me what the worst movie I’ve ever seen was, this sprang to mind and I almost answered definitively, but it did manage to only reach #2. Which is actually perfect in that it achieves nothing, not even the distinction of being the worst.

1.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

PepperNumber one on this list nearly lost its spot on a technicality, in that this was a film I had previously turned off in disgust, only to reluctantly return to and finish just to say I did it. This film is the ultimate disaster and personal retribution because not only is it a dull, pointless, poorly acted pile of trash, it also does irreversible damage to my previously untarnished images of The Beatles, Alice Cooper, Billy Preston, Peter Frampton, and Steve Martin (The Bee Gees were already kind of ridiculous to me). And that’s what put it over the edge; none of the previous films caused any real long-term damage like this one did. Why did this movie have to happen?

The movie is basically an incomprehensible variety show hoping to capitalize on Beatles covers but failing and collapsing into a gestating puddle of embarrassment and technical misery. I’m pretty sure director Michael Schultz literally put the camera on a tripod, hit record, and just left. I know that sounds like a hyperbole, but if you watch it, you’ll see what I mean – and this is a “concert film,” but the camera doesn’t do anything!

This movie commits the ultimate shame of masquerading a business deal as a film and hoodwinking young people to pay into it. Now it rightfully is dejected as the horrendous dumpster fire that it is, but it did do one thing for me; it gave me a definitive answer to my wife’s question (although I wish it had a different title, so I wouldn’t have to be so specific):

What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen?

Why, it’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the 1978 movie, not the album. The album is a masterpiece; the movie is complete and utter garbage!

What do you think? What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen? I’d love to know! Feel free to Tweet me @Peoples_Critic or respond in the comments.

It (2017)

ItDirector: Andy Muschietti

Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, and Bill Skarsgård

Man, this is a strange movie. The movie is strange from the narrative perspective. The movie is strange from the psychological perspective. The movie is strange from the commentary perspective. The movie is strange from a meta perspective (starring one of the boys from Stranger Things, an obvious derivative of Stephen King’s novel It, of which this film is based). This movie is strange from the tone, to the look, to the mood, right down to the challenge of writing a review about It, that doesn’t confuse the title with the non-gender, singular English pronoun, “it,” when referencing It… at least not by accident.

Fans of It have already seen their beloved coming of age horror hit the screen once before, albeit the small screen. The 1990 mini-series based on King’s novel was very well received and has more or less stood the test of time, partially thanks to the ensemble cast that included John Ritter, Tim Curry, Harry Anderson, and Jonathan Brandis. That version’s pervasiveness in pop culture is likely the reason it took so long to get it on the big screen…that and the book’s 1,138 page length (King’s second longest novel next to The Stand).

It opens in the quiet little town of Derry, Maine with that same thrilling, iconic, and horrifying scene that opens the novel as well as the 1990 mini-series, only this time Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) live in the 1980s. The decision to shift the time period from the 1950s to the 1980s is a good one, as King meant for the childhood of these characters to be based on their adult lives being contemporary. I won’t spoil the events of the opening scene, but suffice it to say, the tension is ultra high and Bill Skarsgård’s first appearance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown does not disappoint.

Strange things are happening in Derry, Maine following the tragic events that unfold in the film’s opening scene. Summer is here, school is out, and kids are disappearing. A group of kids find themselves united by some strange visions they’ve all experienced, all of which include the presence of an evil clown figure. “The Loser’s Club,” as they’ve come to be known includes the aforementioned Bill, chubby intellectual Ben, (Jerry Ray Taylor), chatterbox Richie (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), neurotic Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), outcast Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and eventually the ultimate fish out of water, Mike (Chosen Jacobs) whose backstory is only hinted at in this film, but will most likely play a much larger role in the upcoming second chapter.

The Losers all have one goal: to find, stop and kill the strange clown-like being that haunts their lives, preys on their fears, and attacks the children of Derry. Well, that and to avoid the dreaded bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who makes a strong case for being even more threatening than the shape-shifting, demonic, clown monster!

It is mostly a pretty impressive effort. The film oozes with the horror tropes expected with the genre, but also manages to successfully execute the careful tonal shifts that made the book so beloved and treasured for all of these years. The length was certainly a challenge to overcome, and thankfully, director Andy Muschietti and the film’s three screenwriters made the evolved decision to focus only the young protagonists’ story in this film (the novel bounces back and forth between two timelines separated by 27 years). This decision allows the narrative to breathe and not feel too jumbled and busy by trying to capture so many characters in so many different situations. This also all but guarantees a follow-up film that will tackle the story of the adult Losers Club (the $123 million opening weekend probably didn’t hurt the chances of a sequel either). As a matter of fact, the young stars of the film have already selected who they think should play them as adults, and if I may say so – these are some great choices! Still, the film is solid as a stand-alone story on its own.

Speaking of the kids, films like this can easily survive and thrive with one-dimensional performances from the child actors. However, this film decided to ignore that laziness and cast the most perfect and outstanding group of young actors I’ve seen on film in some time. Mostly unknowns, each of these kids found a way to be memorable, convincing, and most of all authentic to his or her character from the book, allowing the film maker to spend more time with these characters and develop them well. So instead of a 100 minute thrill-ride, we got a 135 minute opus that feels eventful, crafted, and most of all, fun!

Here I am rambling on, and I have not even gotten to Bill Skarsgård yet. “It” can’t be easy

Clowns
Some killer clowns (from clockwise): Skarsgård, Curry, Nicholson, and Ledger)

to step into the great Tim Curry’s oversized shoes (a pun I expect will be commonly found in reviews of this film) as Pennywise.  However, Skarsgård’s performance, while clearly inspired by Curry is very much his own. He succeeds in the same way that Heath Ledger succeeded in taking on the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight after Jack Nicholson played him in 1989’s Batman (we’ll leave the Jared Leto version out for now). It’s a grimier, dirtier, more macabre Pennywise. In fact, the 1989 Batman film is listed on the marquis of the Derry town cinema; perhaps a reference to this dual “clown” generational performance, or perhaps just a hint at Warner Brothers’ Justice League coming out this fall.

Are there flaws here? Sure. At the end of the day, this is another reboot; a term becoming all too common in the mainstream entertainment world. What’s that one thing that was popular just long ago enough to be slightly outdated, but also nostalgically relevant? Let’s remake it! I’m not saying It is not a film worth making, but when it comes to criticism and recommending whether you should go spend your money or not, originality matters. Still, this still manages to “float” above the standard fare for the horror genre, and wisely attempts to tap into not just the horror but the heart as well. B+

It is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Atomic Blonde

ABDirector: David Leitch

Screenwriter: Kurt Johnstad

Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, and Eddie Marsan

Maybe a movie like this could have flown before Netflix, before John Wick, or before Mission: Impossible, but not anymore. Atomic Blonde, based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel series, The Coldest City, plays like a Cold War action movie, but it tries too hard to be anything else.

Set in 1989, at the peak of the Cold War, British agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to investigate the death of a fellow agent in Berlin. Cue all the tropes you associate with this genre: mistaken identity, betrayal, secret list of undercover operatives, and so on and so forth. It even does the very thing this clip from The Other Guys is making fun of; it starts at the end, then goes to the beginning, periodically returning to the end, giving various characters’ perspectives. Ridiculous.

The other characters? Hardly worth mentioning, but Broughton is teamed up with another agent named David Percival (James McAvoy) who may or may not be up to something. She also encounters a rookie French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), who Broughton finds much more amusing than Percival.

Does it matter that this movie paints by numbers? It certainly doesn’t have to matter. Movies like Mission: Impossible and John Wick have very little going on upstairs, but what they do have is unrelenting spectacular action sequences! Atomic Blonde has one of those, and while it may be one of the best examples of an action spectacle in a long, long time, it doesn’t do enough to hold the other 90 minutes of the movie afloat.

Atomic Blonde the film wisely immerses us in the music of the times. The best part about Atomic Blonde is its selection and execution of the New Wave/Punk music of the time. Like Baby Driver, none of this music is original; the art is not in the music but rather the selections, arrangement, and placement. I have an even deeper appreciation of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” now.

So what do we have here? Do we have the “female James Bond,” as some publicized this film to be? No. We have middle of the road espionage, set in a provocative time period with good music and one great action scene. That’s just enough to recommend it, but not without the caveat that it comes with a high risk of disappointment. C+

Atomic Blonde is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

Baby Driver

BDDirector: Edgar Wright

Screenwriter: Edgar Wright

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Jamie Foxx

Baby, oh baby, I love to call you baby/

Baby, oh baby, I love for you to call me baby.

First, let me just say this damn soundtrack has been on loop in my house, work, head, car, etc. since I saw this film. That alone, makes it worth the price of admission, and if that were all there was to take away from Baby Driver, that would be ok. Fortunately, behind the soundtrack is the first truly excellent film of 2017!

The film opens explosively with the aptly named band Jon Spencer Blues Explosion playing in the earbuds of our protagonist, a young getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), as he waits in his car for a team of criminals who are robbing a bank. When the song kicks in, so does the action, as Baby shepherds the gang through the streets of Atlanta pursued (hopelessly) by the police. Baby’s a “devil behind the wheel,” and in no time, the team escapes the police, abandons their car and meets up with the kingpin of the operation, a smarmy gangster named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who orchestrates these robberies. Baby’s involvement is out of obligation due to an accidental encounter that ended up costing Doc a lot of money. Baby’s driving skills and subsequent payouts are payback, and once Baby’s debt is paid, he’s out.

That’s the gist. Is it uniquely original? On paper, maybe not so much, but it’s a different story on the screen. It is hard not to discuss Baby Driver in the context of other similar predecessors about getaway drivers and/or villainous lynchpins orchestrating a series of heists. Films like Drive, The Fast and the Furious series, and even the film 21, which also stars Kevin Spacey, all share more than a handful of similarities with Baby Driver in story points. But the execution of Baby Driver is unlike any of those films. On the surface this is a heist film about a getaway driver, but on a larger scale the driving is an instrument to explore music, or more accurately, the act of listening to music.

It’s the music that helps push the narrative. Writer/Director Edgar Wright does a superb job using music, actually the act of listening to music, to drive an otherwise classical narrative structure. This film really invited me to analyze exactly what it is that makes movie narratives work, an analysis I further explored in my commentary piece, “It’s All About Choice.” Like so many classic narratives, we don’t learn much about Baby in the film, or about any of the other characters for that matter. Baby is a man of few words, denied the necessity of choice by Doc, and committed to no real set of values given his almost “island-like” existence. Like I mentioned in “It’s All About Choice,” knowing so very little about Baby actually drives the narrative because he is the ultimate individual who can form his own values and not be labeled or expected to act in any particular way.

But the one characteristic that provides dimension to Baby is his need for an almost uninterrupted stream of music flowing to his ears. It turns out this is not just a personal diversion, but an actual medical necessity as Baby has tinnitus from being in a car accident as a child, and the music drowns out the perpetual ringing. Additionally, the film is edited on several occasions so that the action pulses to the beat of the soundtrack. The use of music to engage the audience, pulsate the action, harbor the mood, develop the tone, and most importantly, develop the character is unlike anything I’ve seen in film, including movie musicals.  The film basically suggests, if the mundane can be made euphoric simply by adding some music…why not add some music?

The arrival of Debra (Lily James) as Baby’s love interest certainly complicates matters, driveand in a good way. Like the way Carey Mulligan impacted another mysterious Driver character, played by Ryan Gosling, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive, Debra evolves Baby into a character who suddenly is faced with choice, consequences, and fear. The stark contrast in Baby before Debra and Baby after Debra is nicely achieved due to Elgort’s and James’s acting, the music, and the direction. Wright does a fantastic job using authentic sets and stunts along with some crafty camera work to capture the visual feast that is Baby Driver. This is a film not to be missed. A-

Baby Driver is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.

It’s All About Choice

choice_mainThe recent film Baby Driver forced me to spend an unhealthy and inordinate amount of time contemplating film narrative development. My upcoming review of that film will go into more specifics in terms of how that film’s narrative is “driven” from a most unsuspecting source. In broader terms though, Baby Driver got me thinking about what at its core drives film narrative, and the answer I arrived at is one word: choice. Well choice, or the absence of it. Historically, there has actually been some debate about what the basis for Hollywood storytelling and narrative style is; however, in order to really arrive at any conclusions, we need to go back to the early days of film. There are actually two film theorists, Robert Ray and Jeanine Basinger, who hold two popular yet different views on the topic.  Robert Ray says in his book A Certain Tendency of the American Cinema 1930-1980, that classic Hollywood narratives revolve around the ideology of “the denial of the necessity of choice,” and this ideology can be utilized both in story as well as in film style/technique. What he means by this is that the narrative is propelled forward due to the appearance of a lack of choice for the protagonist and/or the filmmaker.  Jeanine Basinger, in her book A Woman’s View, on the other hand believes that choice, especially in the case of the movie female, is key to the storytelling and workings of classic Hollywood cinema.  Each of their views can be analyzed separately. For example, Ray’s view can be seen quite clearly in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach while Basinger’s view is well illustrated in Alfred E. Green’s 1933 film Baby Face.

Coach-1In his book, Robert Ray uses the western genre as the best way to document the “denial of the necessity for choice.  He focuses on the western male individual and his “ad hoc solutions for problems depicted as crisis.”  Thus, Ray seems to believe the western hero, a man who is in complete control (or appears to be) of the world around him, is the ultimate example for his theory on how to drive a movie narrative.  Ringo (John Wayne) in John Ford’s Stagecoach is a character that strongly illustrates Ray’s theory.  Ringo is the perfect example for Ray’s statement that “the denial of the necessity for choice…discourag[es] commitment to any single set of values.”  Ringo has no solid set of values and the audience is well aware of this.  As the film progresses, the audience realizes Ringo is unique in the sense that they know the drunk is a drunk and the prostitute is a prostitute but they know very little, if anything at all, about Ringo.  Thus, he is the ultimate individual who can form his own values and not be labeled or expected to act in any particular way.  This frightens most of the characters in the film at first, but Ford demonstrates that Ringo’s qualities are reputable and add to his control of the narrative.  One scene that shows this is the famous dinner scene.  In this scene, everyone stops to eat at a dinner cabin and no one wants to sit near the prostitute, but Ringo thinks that everyone leaves the table because they do not want to sit by him.  Here the audience sees Ringo as completely nonjudgmental and honorable.  Much of this also rings true to the character of Baby (Ansel Elgort) in Baby Driver. He remains a mystery to most of the other characters in his “stagecoach,” yet his stoic silence and individuality propel the film. Watch the scene where Baby jams to his tunes while Doc (Kevin Spacey) lays out the plans for the next robbery, and tell me there are no similarities to the dinner scene in Stagecoach!

This also brings up Ray’s statement about the “law” versus the “heart.”  He says, “This sense of the law’s inadequacy to needs detectable only by the heart generated a rich tradition of legends celebrating legal defiance in the name of some ‘natural’ standard.”  In Stagecoach, Ringo shows that he defies the law for a moralistic reason, avenging his brother’s death, both when he went to prison as well as with the gunfight at the film’s finale (both instances also echoed in Baby Driver).  Ford also uses stylistic technique to show Ringo’s control over his environment.  In the scene where Ringo is first introduced, he climbs into the stagecoach with all the other passengers.  Here, Ford positions Ringo in a way so that every time the camera goes to him he dominates his own frame.  All the shots of the other passengers share the frame with other people, but Ringo is always shown as alone.  This preserves his individual characteristics as well as to allow the audience to identify with him and trust in him.  Furthermore, Ford also allows Ringo to wander freely in and out of frame throughout the film.  Several scenes show Ringo with this freedom of movement.  This represents the fact that Ringo is in control of his environment.  Therefore, Ringo is a strong example of how the western hero can demonstrate the “denial of the necessity for choice” forcing audience identification and, thus, drives the film’s narrative.

BabyfaceThe 1933 film Baby Face is a film that fits nicely into Jeanine Basinger’s theory about women in film.  The crux of that theory is that films on one hand show women with a passion for success where there are unending opportunities and outlooks for them.  However, on the other hand by the end of the film this power of opportunity and choice they once had is somehow deeply undercut and forced in one direction which usually adheres to the current cultural status of women.  Baby Face demonstrates this quite flawlessly.  One scene that brilliantly illustrates Basinger’s ideology is towards the end of the film.  In this scene, Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) has received Trenholm’s (George Brent) fortune.  This money represents all that she has passionately and ruthlessly worked for since she joined the workforce.  However, when Trenhom’s bank is bankrupt, Lily is faced with the choice to either help her husband whom she may love or leave with the money.  She eventually chooses love but at the cost of her husband shooting himself before she makes up her mind.  This alone strongly depicts Basinger’s theory that the woman full of passion is forced to make a choice, usually involving love.  However, Basinger is truly correct when the audience learns that Lily and the recovered Trenholm move to the factory town to start a new life together.  Here the film shows that Lily’s choice that she was forced to make deeply undercuts the passion she had earlier and she is forced to conform to a more socially accepted role for women of her time.  Thus, supporting Basinger’s statement that many films show women doing amazing things, however, in the big picture, the life of the average culturally accepted housewife is the best way to end up. Watch the evolution of Debra (Lily James) in Baby Driver compared to that of Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). How does the narrative treat them? What choices were made? Where do they end up and how does that reflect the current cultural status of women? Also, I would be remiss to not mention the similarity in title: Baby Face, Baby Driver.

MildredAlthough Ray and Basinger’s views are contrasting in some respects, I propose that the two theories can be reconciled.  An excellent example of this reconciliation can be found in an analysis of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce.  Although Ray and Basinger’s theories for the basis of classic Hollywood narrative success differs on many fronts, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce seems to correlate both theorists ideas into a very cohesive classic Hollywood narrative structure. It is at this reconciliation, that I believe we stand today in terms of what is driving our modern Hollywood narratives as well – Baby Driver being a strong example.  As Ray states, films of the classic Hollywood era were quite careful to try to draw as little attention as possible to the actual production of the picture itself.  That is to say, trying to make the audience forget that they are watching a movie or that choices are made for every step of the film’s progression.  However, as time passed many films began to deviate from this normal classic Hollywood style and create new genres of film style and mythology.  This transition away from the classic Hollywood style and storytelling did not occur over night and, thus, it is these transition films of the late 30’s and early 40’s that illustrate a clash of Ray and Basinger’s arguments.  Although they are still classified to be of the classical Hollywood style and narrative structure, these films also began to include new styles, choices, and techniques which, in the case of Mildred Pierce, were strongly focused towards the movie female.

choice2It is clear that Mildred Pierce demonstrates many of the characteristics Ray would say are commonly found in the classic Hollywood formula narrative.  For example, in the scene near the beginning where Mildred (Joan Crawford) is summoned to speak with Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen), Curtiz uses classic Hollywood style to show Peterson’s control and authority over the situation.  In this scene Peterson is positive that he has found the murderer and he explains the mechanics of how his detective work has succeeded.  In the first shot of the scene, the camera is positioned behind Peterson’s desk.  This shot allows Peterson to tower over Mildred as he stands up to greet her.  After he sits down, Curtiz cuts to a close shot of Peterson so that he dominates the frame as he begins to explain his case.  The camera then cuts to a longer shot of Mildred and then back to the same closer shot of Peterson.  This technique of cutting back and forth during a conversation while emphasizing one individual’s contribution more than the other’s echoes Ray’s theory of how there is very little choice involved here.  Like Ford, Curtiz too shows one character as completely dominant.  This method forces the audience to identify more with Peterson than with Mildred without drawing their attention to any camera movements.  This scene also uses other classic Hollywood techniques to show that Peterson is in control of this conversation.  Later in the scene Mildred wants to know who Peterson believes the murderer to be.  Peterson stands up and again the camera is positioned behind him allowing him to tower over Mildred.  After he tells Mildred that she is entitled to know who killed her husband, there is an eyeline match between Peterson and the buzzer on his desk, which alerts one of his officers to bring in the suspect.  Peterson is very much in control of his diegnesis here; all he has to do is push a button to make something happen.  This use of an eyeline match to reinforce Peterson’s control over the conversation helps suture the viewer into the film, and is also a common characteristic of the classic Hollywood cinematic style.  Before the scene ends, there is another shot that adds to Peterson’s control of the scene.  After Mildred’s first husband is brought in as the suspect, the camera cuts to another shot of Peterson.  In this shot, the camera is pointing slightly upwards at him to give him an aura of superiority as he confirms his position by saying calmly, “Yes, he did it, your first husband, Pierce.”  This technique again enhances the viewer’s trust and assurance in Peterson without drawing attention to the filmmaking process.  Thus, this scene is a very strong example of Ray’s theory that the classic Hollywood narrative is driven by an appearance of a lack of choice by the filmmaker as well as for the audience.

Basinger’s voice can be heard in another sequence of the same film. Mildred Pierce is one of the films of the late 30’s and 40’s that experiments with adding a distinct and noticeable style to the film and, thus, beginning to deviate from the transparent classic Hollywood style of filmmaking.  It seems that it is these stylistic sequences that hold strongly to Basinger’s theory of the movie female in classic Hollywood narratives.  A scene that demonstrates a deviation from classic Hollywood style is the final scene of the film.  Here Curtiz uses bright imagery contrasted with dark imagery in the same scene.  After Mildred’s daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) has been discovered as the murderer, Mildred exits the police station.  As she exits, her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett) is waiting for her.  As they leave the police station they walk out from the shadows and out through a bright sunlit arch.  This obvious contrast of darkness to brightness stylistically implies a positive future for the couple.  Here Basinger shines through as Curtiz creates an establishment or reestablishment of a man/woman couple.  He does this with rather expressionistic style as well as constructing his narrative so that the woman has made a very hard choice; Mildred realizes she had always neglected her husband for her daughter and, thus she chooses to start over.  This scene comes quite soon after the audience learns that Mildred lost her restaurant to Wally (Jack Carson).  This connection strongly supports Basinger’s statement that while movies say women should be both woman and wife, these same films show, (as in Baby Face) these “woman” options fail leaving the woman left to become the wife.

ChoiceRobert Ray and Jeanine Basinger have two very strong arguments about what drives a film narrative.  Ray has strong evidence to support his view that a film that guides the audience thematically and stylistically by displaying a “denial of the necessity for choice” is the best way to drive a narrative.  Stagecoach is a good example of this theory through use of the western hero.  Basinger, on the other hand, finds that characters, usually woman, forced to make a choice is what makes a film work and is seen in the film Baby Face.  However, most remarkably, is the fact that both theorists can be represented in one film, Mildred Pierce, and more modernly – Baby Driver, where their theories are demonstrated separately while still making the film work as a whole. This has lead to the evolution of the American film narrative paving the way for pioneers like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and most recently Edgar Wright.