Once upon a pair of wheels: On Edgar Wright's 'Baby Driver'
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‘Baby Driver’ review: Edgar Wright’s best work to date is pure pop alchemy

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The most uneven and intriguing aspect of Edgar Wright’s filmography has always been his endings; Whether it be the snow-trodden brunch logistics of Scott Pilgrim or the cowboy Goonies rally of The World’s End, they are brief and smooth and never as shattering as they feel they should be. It’s not a fault so much as it is a limitation of the form: when a film’s denouement requires the pace and tone to breath, to loosen its grip, genre work has to be perfectly calibrated on its conventional dramatics, not just its visual grammar. It is the only moment in any of Wright’s work that must succeed predominantly through structure Wright’s previous film ended with an odd moment of thematic anti-climax: Although the quest mix of nostalgia meta-commentary and alcoholism never fully congealed, the two ran nicely parallel up until Simon Pegg approaches the final scene, sober but still distressingly delusional. All of Wright’s work is personal catharsis through genre, but the issues arise when genre shields his characters irrevocably from the real world.

Thankfully, the ending to his new film, Baby Driver – which I won’t spoil here – is so deeply moving, world-weary and fantastically cathartic. The film is unapologetically, and solely, an action film, without subversion, parody, or blatant homage. It is the story of a young getaway driver who falls in love and wants to get out of the business. The narrative tracks almost instinctively as if the film thrives on the plasma in IMDb’s very DNA. The work does not go beyond the lexicon of philosophical concerns, shying away from even the interrogations posed by Michael Mann, as well as his warped, pretentious perspective. Alas, Baby Driver is the rare film all the best for its apparent shallowness. As the credits rolled, it felt as if Edgar Wright had finally achieved formal nirvana; Not since Shaun of the Dead has his work been filled with such emotional pathos and clarity, and his visual prowess has done nothing, if not expanded.

Wright condenses 60 or so years of pop cinema vocabulary into a mind-boggling circus of virtuosity. The sound mixing isn’t just clear or stylish; It is integral to the film’s very core, its rhythms and pacing and emotional arc. It traces through the mind almost subliminally, to the point where pinpointing diegesis is rendered impossible and unnecessary.

Baby Driver is, above else, an ode to righteousness. The characters have a pureness of heart. The film subverts the “Save the Cat” mentality by embracing it: audiences don’t respond to the pleasantness of an initial interaction, but rather a quietly persistent statement of character. Baby never ceases in his goodness. He is not a boring or static character, but rather one that ricochets through the film parallel to the audience. He is not a surrogate but a saint, an idol.

Ansel Elgort is an odd, polarizing cast choice (Miriam Bale savaged pinned him as the physical embodiment of Film Twitter: “tall yet unformed.”) Yet here he is exact mix of suave and distanced, self-conscious and self-obsessed, never anything less than totally charming while still lacking any star power.

There are bad people in the world of Baby Driver – really, really bad people. They take the guise of their nicknames – Darling, or Buddy, or Bats – and the stereotypes allowed by genre. But the film transcends this representation – there are scenes, whether in a diner, or an anonymous, where the dialogue gives way to blindsiding pathos. There’s a desperation to the robberies, drifting from cool to cruel There is a desperation to the foregrounded conversations – a thoroughly 90s discontent, and a callous exterior. The film is slick and goes off without a hitch, but in these scenes, a deep anger, a jaded worldview, an all pervasive and universal sadness comes through. The film makes no attempt to subvert the tropes of the action genre, but rather mesh them together so perfectly so as to transcend it, like a getaway driver, making the rigorous seem effortless, the ritual seem improvisational, the pathos seem gleeful.  

In most ways, Baby Driver is a boyish, dorky fantasy, a finely-tuned mixtape epic. Yet the craft on display here is remarkable, beyond anything even Wright has done before. It’s a perfectly curated synthesis of every goshdarn work on his infamous 1000 favorite movies list, a film about the ability to strive for goodness no matter what. To say the film is conventional does not lend Wright enough credit. The film is rather enamored with convention, a two hour hymnal to the gospels of Steve McQueen and Sylvester Stallone. It’s a fairy tale that uses its romance, and its villains, even its hero as something akin to window dressing – yet the film is all the better for it. Baby Driver treats its generic baseline as a mantra to guide every set piece. The film’s narrative arc becomes irrelevant (but, crucially remains competent and cohesive), in the face of such broader, nobler goals such as a feature-length paen to the nature of goodness. The film settles for no easy answers, not ambiguous one-liners, never exacerbates its romance behind the sweetest of infatuations.  

The film is as innocent and as bleak as they come. It does not shatter the world or come across as some grand work of fine art. Rather, Baby Driver is a pop masterpiece: heartfelt and wickedly cool – all surface, all pleasure.

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‘Us’ review: The latest horrifying nightmare from the mind of Jordan Peele is his best one yet

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Us Jordan Peele
UNIVERSAL PICTURES

A little more than two years after the release of Get Out, the Oscar-winning directorial debut from Jordan Peele that served as a creepy, satirical social commentary about race relations in America, the writer-director is back again with Us, his audacious sophomore effort that so desperately wants us to know that, despite what we may think, we are our own worst enemies.

The film opens with a brief, chilling prologue set in 1986 before fast forwarding to the present day where we meet the Wilsons, an upper-middle-class black family visiting their Santa Cruz beach house for what is expected to be an idyllic summer getaway.

Santa Cruz also happens to be the hometown of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), who is as charming as she is overprotective of her family, which includes the fun-loving Gabe (Winston Duke), phone-tethered teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and mask-wearing young son Jason (Evan Alex).

Perhaps it’s her motherly instincts that cause her to be the way she is, but it’s probably more so due to the fact that she experienced a traumatizing incident as a child that still continues to haunt her to this day. And you can’t really blame her for that.

So when Gabe offers to take the family to the beach for the day, the site where Adelaide experienced her childhood trauma, she understandably refuses. But after some convincing from Gabe, she agrees to go, but only under the condition that they leave before nightfall.

Oddly enough, though, the moment the Wilsons arrive at the beach, a number of strange events and coincidences begin to unfold; we see a dead body being loaded into the back of an ambulance, a frisbee with a pentagram-like design land perfectly aligned with a polka dot on a beach towel, and a bloodied man standing motionless in the middle of the beach, hands out, as if he’s waiting for someone to come and join him.

These strange occurrences, in addition to Jason wandering off without telling Adelaide, put her on edge. And when the Wilsons arrive home that night, things don’t necessarily get any better. There’s a family standing in their driveway. Four of them. Who is it? It’s the Wilsons themselves.

While the concept of the evil doppelgänger is certainly nothing new to the horror genre, Us always feels wholly fresh and original, and never once dares to fall back on the typical genre tropes or clichés that audiences have grown so very tired of over the years.

Peele’s script, much like the one that won him an Oscar for Get Out, is wickedly smart, funny, and witty, and is packed with so many genuinely shocking surprises that you never fully know for certain when he’s going to be throwing another curve ball your way.

The cast acts it all out in such incredible fashion too, especially when you consider the fact that they’re pulling double duty here with dual performances. Nyong’o is particularly impressive though. Whether she’s playing the charming superheroine that is Adelaide or her terrifying, raspy-voiced doppelgänger, it’s hard not to rank her up there with Toni Collette in Hereditary as one of the best horror performances in recent memory.

By the time the Us is over, things may not be clear right away. And that’s OK. With all of the various imagery and symbolism spread throughout, there’s no doubt that this is a film that demands more than just one repeat viewing. But the main message at the heart of the film is evident, and it’s as important as ever—especially in Trump’s America.

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‘Aquaman’ review: James Wan manages to deliver a satisfying underwater superhero origin story

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Aquaman
WARNER BROS.

Well, it appears that audiences will be forced to find another superhero to make the butt of a joke.

James Wan‘s Aquaman is a spectacular comic book film that proves itself a leap in the right direction for the DC Extended Universe. This incredibly well-crafted underwater adventure creates a spectacular world that truly has no match in visual delight, making it one of the most vibrant and colorful stories in the DC film series yet that demands to be seen in theaters. Flawlessly traversing genres and providing a little bit of something for everyone, Wan has given audiences the perfect comic book experience.

Aquaman is the story of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), the half-bred Prince of Atlantis, born to a surface-dwelling lighthouse keeper named Tom (Temuera Morrison) and the queen herself, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). Arthur is raised knowing about his Atlantean heritage, but not aware that his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) has been declared king in his absence. When Princess Mera (Amber Heard) seeks out Arthur to stop Orm from declaring war on the surface world, Arthur must reluctantly challenge him to claim his rightful throne as the king that the seven seas needs.

The pure passion for a character that was seen in Patty Jenkins’ direction of Wonder Woman in 2017 is similarly seen in how James Wan handled Aquaman. Wan embraces the fact that this fish-talking superhero has been a joke for decades, but instead of taking an unnecessarily dark look at this hero’s origin story, he has boundless fun with its potential. This film is the splash of creativity and liveliness that was desperately needed in the midst of audience’s other favorite heroes going through some rough times after a certain snap of the fingers. Where Wan exceeds most, however, is his ability to take this story in so many different directions without making it appear sloppy. It is quite difficult to place a genre on this movie, as it seamlessly transitions from science-fiction to comedy to horror to romance and everything in between without missing a beat. Throughout the film, Wan seems to take inspiration from his own experience in horror, as well as iconic franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Lord of the Rings, just to name a few, while blending them all together beautifully.

Comic book purists will be very satisfied with this film as well, as Wan has certainly done his research on that front. Aquaman is a perfect culmination of the Aquaman mythos that has been constantly built upon since his first appearance in 1941. Paired with an undeniably catchy, synth-pop soundtrack, the balance between this character’s original story and its modernity for the current scene in cinema is fantastic. Since the character of Aquaman was introduced in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and brought back for last year’s Justice League, he has evolved to truly make his own film the best entry into this shared universe. There still exists a bit of Zack Snyder’s signature polish in this movie as he is an executive producer, but not much of his directorial influence is seen, which is undoubtedly for the best. Wan was the greatest possible choice to helm this character’s wild solo film in its vividly royal, underwater setting, making for a picture perfect fantasy adventure.

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall’s script is the one unfortunate aspect of this film that fails to deliver the same amount of epic quality. This type of story has been told before and much of the dialogue throughout this film was consistently weak. While effective, the majority of this script is full of tropes and one-liners that can venture into painful and cheesy screenwriting territory. The surprising benefit of this, however, is how self-aware the writing is. These two screenwriters knew that they were writing a film about one of the most ridiculed heroes in pop culture history and because of that, the story does not take itself too seriously. This film knows that it doesn’t have to pretend to be something that it’s not and it has no need to try either. Knowing there is nothing to lose means that the writers are simply there to please moviegoers with a purely entertaining story. Despite the generic writing, Momoa, Heard, and the rest of the ensemble have an absolute blast with their characters. Each actor and actress emits passion and energy through their performances and it is obvious that they put so much care and effort into creating something special.

This film is wonderfully done in all of its technical parts as well. The colors and visuals that entranced the world of the undersea kingdoms were simply stunning as visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain has a tremendous eye for not just beauty, but fantasy world-building too. While DC’s previous films have had quite a lack of color and even Marvel films stick to a certain grading, this movie breaks that formula in the most appealing ways possible. The fight choreography, coordinated by Jon Valera, was very exciting and brilliantly utilized the different powers and abilities that the various characters had. These action sequences were also aided by the very fluid cinematography from Don Burgess; his use of wide shots and lots of twisting of the camera created some mesmerizing scenes. Regardless of how much CGI was used throughout this movie, there were also many fantastic shots that aimed to establish the absolutely wild tone of whatever genre Wan was switching to next.

Aquaman is an unapologetically fun thrill ride that is the epitome of a great adventure movie. James Wan holds nothing back in terms of gorgeous visuals and relentless entertainment value and the entire cast and crew make this underrated superhero one of the best fantasy films ever. There’s also a scene where an octopus plays the drums, so make of that what you will.

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‘Roma’ review: Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white family drama is nothing short of a masterpiece

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Roma Netflix
CARLOS SOMONTE/NETFLIX

As someone who has long championed Alfonso Cuarón‘s 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men as being the best film in the Oscar-winning Mexican filmmaker’s career, I was astonished when I slowly began to realize about halfway through watching Roma, Cuarón’s latest offering, that my opinion about Children of Men was no longer the same.

Roma, Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical black-and-white love letter to his hometown of Mexico City and the women who raised him, is arguably his best work to date for an assortment of different reasons, mostly because it’s a stunning achievement not only in Cuarón’s personal filmography, but rather cinema as a whole.

Set in the early 1970s in the bustling, upper-middle-class neighborhood of Colonia Roma, Cuarón’s most personal project to date follows the day-to-day life of Cleo (played extraordinarily by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), who is based on Cuarón’s actual real-life nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, to whom the film is dedicated to.

Cleo is relatively quiet and mostly keeps to herself as she does chores around the house of the family she works for like picking up laundry, cleaning up dog poop, and making sure all of the bedrooms in the house are tidy. She even puts the children to bed late at night and is there to wake them up bright and early in the morning when it’s time to start getting ready for school.

In her off hours, Cleo enjoys gossiping and reminiscing with Adela (Nancy Garcia), the family’s cook, and going to the local movie theater with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts enthusiast with whom Cleo shares somewhat of a distant relationship with—a relationship that will eventually set them even further apart as the film goes on.

It’s somewhat of a shame that not every person will have the pleasure of experiencing Roma, which is currently playing in theaters in select cities before launching globally on Netflix later this month, the same way I did, in a theater, to fully absorb Cuarón’s masterpiece for the remarkable piece of work that is truly is.

Cuarón’s exquisite 65mm black-and-white photography beautifully captures every detail that comes into frame, making excellent use of long takes and wide shots, while Cuarón’s equally impressive editing allows the story to unfold with an incredible amount of patience, yet it does so with efficiency, never letting the film lag for even a second.

There’s also something to be said about Skip Lievsay’s marvelously complex sound design, whether it’s the sound of a splash of water hitting the ground or gunshots ringing out as a student protest turns deadly, and Eugenio Caballero’s meticulous production design, which utilizes sets that are so simple, yet so intricate at the same time.

A film that is packed with an overwhelming amount of beauty, emotion, and intimacy, Roma is a mighty impressive feat on the part of Cuarón and evidently sets forth a new standard when it comes to this type of personal filmmaking. Or perhaps just filmmaking in general.

Roma’s limited theatrical run is currently ongoing in select cities including New York, Los Angeles, and London. Find out if it’s playing in your city here. The film will launch globally on Netflix on December 14.

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