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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‘Men in Black: International’ review: You’ll want to erase this movie from your mind after its over

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Men in Black: International
SONY PICTURES

If Hollywood studios are content to cannibalize the vaults in search of new hits, the first thing they should remember is why the original films were hits in the first place. For all the bells and whistles that went along with the original 1997 Men in Black, with its cutting-edge alien effects, the reason it works is extremely old-fashioned, rooted in an effective cross-pollination between fish-out-of-water comedy and mismatched buddy comedy.

There were plenty of laughs in Will Smith’s knockabout reactions to a secret agency tasked with containing the alien underground, and more still in the back-and-forth between him and his crusty counterpart, played by Tommy Lee Jones. No matter how expensive films get, it’s the cheapest business that matter most.

Though the awful Men in Black: International is technically a sequel to Men in Black 3, it’s unlikely that many are immersed enough in the mythology to recall Emma Thompson’s Agent O as the thin connective tissue between them, especially without Smith or Jones in the picture. So it’s really more a stealth reboot with Tessa Thompson in the Smith role of a charismatic new recruit and Chris Hemsworth as the seasoned veteran in the Jones mold, though neither is doing an imitation. Their roles have been reimagined to where there’s hardly any sharp contrasts between them — her confidence is never buffoonish, his experience is never ornery — so the best they can manage is a little light teasing and the occasional moony glance.

Yet the true thrust of Men in Black: International is suggested by its title: What if there were MIB branches around the world? That would mean that the agents are not mere American beat officers, like the Smith/Jones duo, but globe-trotting James Bond types who get whisked from London to Paris to Marrakesh, Morocco, and back again. There’s nothing funny about the concept, but like a 007 thriller, there’s a generous assortment of fashionable outfits, souped-up luxury vehicles and the latest in alien-zapping weaponry, all managed by those cool translucent swipe-screen computers from Minority Report. More bells and whistles.

In a reversal of the Men in Black origin story, Thompson’s Agent M isn’t discovered by MIB. It is the other way around, as part of a 20-year quest to find the agency that visited her home as a child. Admiring her initiative, Agent O sends her from New York to the London branch, which is immersed in intrigue surrounding a threat called The Hive. Hemsworth’s Agent H and his former partner, High T (Liam Neeson), saved the world from this same alien species a couple of years before, and now their enemies have taken the form of Les Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois), two shape-shifting siblings from Morocco who are on a trail of destruction. Agent H and Agent M are on the case, joined by a pocket-sized alien wiseacre named Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), but they begin to suspect that MIB’s house is not in order.

There’s a lot of plotting in Men In Black: International, which makes room for a diabolical three-armed seductress (Rebecca Ferguson) and a compact weapon of planet-destroying power, but the more the story unfurls, the deeper the film sinks into quicksand. Director F. Gary Gray and his screenwriters, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, have made the crucial mistake of believing the franchise needs complex world-building instead of streamlined comedy. Even if the events in the film made any kind of sense, they were never going to matter as much as the good time Hemsworth, Neeson and the two Thompsons are supposed to be showing us. And yet that’s where the emphasis lies.

Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are a proven commodity, having teamed up briefly in Thor: Ragnarok, perhaps the funniest of all the Marvel movies, but they are too busy hustling around to expensive set pieces to spark off each other. Though Nanjiani’s super-cute alien seems like a leftover from Batteries Not Included, at least he has some room to toss around insults and witticisms, and improvise his way out of trouble. Whether the franchise can survive without Smith and Jones is an open question, but it can’t live on gadgetry and spy games and an influx of Mos Eisley cantina denizens alone. There has to be chemistry, too.

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‘Rocketman’ review: Elton John’s biopic is so much better (and gayer) than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

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Rocketman
PARAMOUNT PICTURES

I don’t want to ruffle any peacock feathers, rattle sequins, or get anyone’s codpiece in a twist, but it does have to be said: Gay people have sex.

Apologies if this isn’t news, but you wouldn’t know when heading to the cinema, in the year 2019, whether or not a movie about the life of Elton John in which he says the phrase, “I have fucked everything that moves,” depicts actual gay sex. Again, a movie about Elton John. Elton John!

Imagine having spent a lifetime delighting in the star’s flamboyant performances and reading the gossip rag stories about his life, then purchasing a ticket for a movie not expecting or, worse, not wanting to see gay sex scenes. Elton John!!!

Yet there was much talk leading up to Rocketman’s release this Friday over whether different parties that be—the studio, the actors, the director—were going to acquiesce to a late-stage panic about the film’s one explicit sex scene and tame it down, if not remove it completely.

It was an infuriating report about a movie about a LGBTQ rock icon being released so soon after Bohemian Rhapsody, which not only blushed at the idea of showing Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury in the throes of passion with other men but treated his sexuality as a predatory gateway drug to a destructive lifestyle. It was also not a surprise, as that movie, despite and maybe because of this, went on to be a big fat hit and win Academy Awards.

Well, there is gay sex in Rocketman. That fact was heralded like a hosannah from the shores of the Croisette when the film premiered to a lengthy standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. The gleeful reaction was a breath of relief, but also, it turns out, an indictment of how little we’re willing to settle for and even celebrate.

There’s been so much press after Cannes breathlessly praising Rocketman for being the first studio movie to include a gay sex scene. That’s not entirely true, though this is certainly the biggest movie pitched to a mass audience to do so. And it’s all over one (very short!) scene in which Egerton’s Elton and Richard Madden’s John Reid, his former lover and manager, aggressively make out and begin stripping off their clothes. The camera shifts away just as they are about to have sex, giving a blink-and-miss-it view of a butt. Rude.

(Whatever “nude cuddle” was the subject of so many reports is not to be found.)

It’s hot, yes. It’s also so brief, and the lone example, to the point that when John later in the film boasts about having “fucked everything that moves,” you can’t help but think, has he though?

It’s a small point to complain about in a movie that is about far more than the sex this man had. Except that so much of the movie, which is centered around an addict at his breaking point looking back at all his vices and how they’ve shaped him, is very much about the sex this man had.

The most explicitly gay thing about the film is the character of Elton John thinking that he’s fat when he’s played by Taron Egerton. Still, the movie is sufficiently gayer than Bohemian Rhapsody—and, yes, that matters. It’s far more concerned with capturing John’s spirit than Rhapsody was with anything besides making the other members of Queen seem cool, certainly not doing right by Mercury.

Because of this, Rocketman is infinitely better in almost every way than Bohemian Rhapsody, to the point that people will inevitably wonder that, if it doesn’t perform as well at the box office, its “gayness” will be one of the reasons why.

The film opens with Elton John bursting through a door in a flaming-red bodysuit with flared bell bottoms, a headpiece with devil horns, heart-shaped sunglasses, and a pair of red wings so massive and ornate a Victoria’s Secret model would shed a single tear at the sight. He looks fabulous. It is the lowest moment of his life.

The glam-rock couture is brought down to earth by the fittingly sober surroundings: a group counseling session at a rehab, where John is finally checking himself in after a cocktail of addictions—alcohol, sex, cocaine, pills, and even shopping—has proven too potent for him to handle.

It’s a clever introduction to the film’s framing device: John at rehab answering counselors’ questions about his past relationships with his parents, lovers, and longtime writing partner and best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) as a way of unlocking a series of flashbacks by way of fantasias. From there, we look back at his childhood, coming out, and surging career, each with surreal breaks from reality in which characters break into song, break the fourth wall, or, in some cases, break the rules of physics and gravity and start levitating.

The whole thing is fittingly unconventional, fantastical, and campy. This is a biopic about Elton John; it bloody hell should be.

But the visual tricks and dreamlike set pieces—an entire British suburb falling into step for a song-and-dance rendition of “The Bitch Is Back,” John floating above his piano, an entire number performed in a pool underwater—are an illusion. In terms of structure, storytelling, and cliches, this is very much your traditional biopic.Rocketman is proof that there can be all kinds of flair and flourish in the brush strokes, but a film can still be paint-by-numbers.

From the start, the beats are familiar. He’s a child music prodigy, and performance is his ticket out of a humdrum life. He has a mercurial, withholding father (Steven Mackintosh) who chastises him, “Don’t be soft.” His mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) swills martinis and chases each gesture of love toward her son with a stinger. “You’re choosing a life of being alone forever,” she tells him when he comes out to her, punctuating her initial insistence that she didn’t care with a dagger to the heart. “You’ll never be loved.”

All the substance abuse, the dysfunctional relationship with Reid, the outlandish costumes, the fake name (John was born Reginald Dwight), the sexual angst: It’s all because he doesn’t know what it means to be himself. “You gotta kill the person you were born as in order to become the person you want to be,” a musician he meets early in his career says. At one point, Reginald thought he knew who that was. All this fame and all these struggles later, Elton isn’t so sure.

That’s Rocketman’s revelation. Imagine an entertainer so boisterous and legendary, with that much bravery—rocking out in those costumes all those decades ago—and outlandish charisma, not being in tune with who he is.

The comparisons to Rhapsody are both maybe a little unfair but also entirely relevant. It would be reductive to measure the films against each other just because they are major rockstar biopics released close together, and especially egregious to do so just because their two subjects are queer.

But there is the unignorable trivia that Rocketman’s director, Dexter Fletcher, was brought in to finish shooting and rescue the Bohemian Rhapsody production after Bryan Singer was fired, inextricably tying the two films together. Then there’s the shared cultural impact of both, tapping into what made Bohemian Rhapsody such a phenomenon, and charging Rocketman with course-correcting the elements of that phenomenon that were so problematic.

To that regard, Rocketman lends a dignity to John’s feelings about his sexuality where Rhapsody disgraces and even demonizes Mercury’s struggle. And whileRhapsody manipulated facts of Mercury’s sexuality and AIDS diagnosis to manufacture an emotional climax in the Live Aid finale, there’s no such bastardizing in Rocketman.

In Rhapsody, Malek made inhabiting Mercury seem effortless, wearing his physicality and magnetism with ease. If Egerton seems to be working harder in Rocketman, one might argue it’s because he is: He does his own singing! There are people in both camps when it comes to whether it matters that an actor records his own vocals when playing a singer on screen, but there’s no debating that what Egerton accomplishes here is nothing less than a sensational movie star turn.

It’s true that no number in Rocketman lives up to the exhilaration of that Live Aid performance. But it also doesn’t have to rely on the thrill of that ending to justify enjoying the rest of a sluggishly paced, superficial, and poorly edited production. Rocketman is a blast from beginning to end, boasting enough Baz Luhrmann-esquerazzle-dazzle and inventiveness to surprise and spellbound audiences who remember when rock was young—and still magical.

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‘Aladdin’ review: Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of the Disney classic isn’t exactly a whole new world

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Aladdin
DISNEY

At this point, we’ve seen enough live-action reimaginings of Disney’s animated canon to know they don’t always concern themselves with breaking the mold. Their classics are classics for a reason – so if it ain’t broke, right? It should come as no surprise then that their adaptation of 1992’s Aladdin, for the most part, is very content to color inside the lines. Most of the proceedings will feel very familiar to fans of the original, so if you’re looking for a totally different take on it, you’re going to have to temper expectations. What we do get is a visually impressive, energetic adventure that could have spent a little more time on what new it does bring to the table.

Disney had a huge challenge out of the gate in conceiving this movie – how the heck do you recast the Genie, a role so iconically played by the late Robin Williams? Will Smith’s turn as the Genie, for all of its blue-tinged pre-release controversy, is largely a success. Crucially, Smith avoids the one thing that would have derailed the performance: trying to recreate the inimitable Robin Williams’ iteration of the character. Williams’ Genie was an amplification of the actor’s signature chaotic personality and Will Smith wisely steers far clear of trying to match that. This Genie relies on Smith’s charm, bravado, and the clear amount of fun he’s having playing the role. The story does give Smith’s Genie a little more depth than just being blue and hilarious, affording him a surprisingly fun and grounded subplot.

But does Smith get by on charm alone? It’s going to depend a lot on your opinion of Will Smith. While Robin Williams breezed through dozens of different voices and personas to bring the Genie to life, never letting us know what to expect, this version of the character very much feels like blue Will Smith (blue Hitch may be closer), so your mileage with the character is going to vary a lot based on how willing you are to accept that. While Smith does fine work, how reliant this Genie is on Smith’s personality does make you wonder if an actor pushing farther out of their comfort zone would have gotten us closer to the boundless creativity that made Robin Williams’ performance so memorable.

The one area that does feel like a clear improvement over the 1992 version is the characterization of Naomi Scott’s Jasmine, to the point where at times the movie feels like it’s more invested in her story than Aladdin’s. The princess feels more three-dimensional (pun not intended… nor apologized for) and she is given far more interesting ambitions this time around. Scott gives the character a dignity and drive that makes it easier to root for her than poor old Al. Both Jasmine and Genie’s newly fleshed-out arcs are welcome additions, but they do draw attention to how predictable and dated Aladdin’s story feels by comparison.

The supporting cast is hit-or-miss. While Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnusson’s new characters end up being reliable for laughs, Marwan Kenzari’s take on Jafar is a letdown. Aside from a quick exchange about hating second place, it’s never very clear why Jafar is scheming for the Sultan’s throne, other than the fact that he’s just generally evil. The animated Jafar had real wickedness and darkness to him, but Kenzari trades that in for a creepy, ill-defined lust for power that never really excites. But he’s the one standing in Aladdin and Jasmine’s way and, dang it, we want them to be together!

Fans will be glad to know that Aladdin’s catalog of great songs are well represented here. Though “One Jump Ahead” proves to be a bit of a misfire early on, featuring a heavy emphasis on chase and action that doesn’t quite work, the rest of the numbers are a good time. “Friend Like Me” is the movie at its visual peak, and probably the closest the movie gets to recreating the magic of the animated film. One of the most pleasant surprises on the soundtrack is the new number written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen), “Speechless”. Scott’s an able singer, and “Speechless” is a great showcase for that talent. The song won’t win any awards for subtlety, but in the context of Jasmine’s story, it really works.

On the visual front, Aladdin rarely disappoints. Agrabah feels vibrant and alive, most of all during “Prince Ali”’s grand entrance, and the surrounding desert is beautifully shot. The Cave of Wonders sequence in particular shows off Guy Richie’s skill at crafting an action set-piece, and everything from the mystical danger of that scene down to Aladdin’s parkouring all over Agrabah really moves with great pace under his eye.

One of the most pleasant surprises on the soundtrack is the new number written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen), “Speechless”. Scott’s an able singer, and “Speechless” is a great showcase for that talent. The song won’t win any awards for subtlety, but in the context of Jasmine’s story, it really works.

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