Good Time (Safdie and Safdie; 2017)

Rules in screenwriting and film making exist for a reason, and breaking them usually creates a mess of a movie.  Knowing exactly how and when to break these rules, though, can occasionally make for a classic.  Memento and The Sweet Hereafter break the rules of time, telling the story in non-chronological fashion, and these two are remembered as classics and started a trend which film makers are still trying to mimic.  Man With a Movie Camera and Koyaanisqatsi will live on for a very long time due to the fact that they don’t even have a plot and just attempt to observe the real world.  Dogville forgoes having a set whatsoever and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn throws the preconceptions of genre out the window.  I mention all these because Good Time is another rule breaking film, but it’s unlike any other that make the attempt in that it is neither a mess nor a movie that is destined to be talked about in film classes for years to come, but merely a film that you look at as an interesting idea that worked relatively well.

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That unwritten rule which Good Time breaks is that a story needs to have a mapped out plot and subplots with clear high points and breaks according to a long accepted structure.  Good Time‘s story is less structured and more the feeling of being dragged along by strangers through a place you’re unfamiliar with to a destination you don’t know.  The story is one of two brothers, Connie Nikas played by Robert Pattinson and Nick Nikas played by Benny Safdie who also wrote and directed Good Time.  The story starts when Connie decides he is going to rob a bank dragging Nick, who is intellectually disabled, along.  Connie gets away with the robbery, but Nick is captured by the police and the money stolen is lost.  The majority of Good Time takes place over one night in which Connie tries to get his brother out of jail using whatever means are available to him as the night progresses.

Good Time never focuses on any one part of the story arc for very much time, and once a specific incident is finished from Connie’s perspective, that incident and everything it involved is left behind never to be seen nor spoken of again.  This means that the fate of important characters are left up in the air, objects that were once important are forgotten about, and central ideas are discarded.  It makes for a story which feels more like a panicked night of grasping at straws than a coherent plot, and I’m sure that is exactly what the film makers were trying for.

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Adding to the disorientation is the camera work.  Normally I consider it a knock against a film, particularly an action film, when the director of cinematography chooses to use close-up shaky camera techniques as a means of disorienting the audience and thereby masking the fact that the stunt work doesn’t look good or some other flaw in the creation of the film’s action visuals.  Here, the grainy shaky hand held camera is very much a feature not a bug as it accentuates the disoriented mix of dream and reality which the Safdie brothers are trying for.  It’s certainly not a law being broken, as this style of camera work is still in regular usage even if it is in disfavor by most critics, but this cinematic technique is still a gutsy move as it is going out of style and is used not just to hide lack of talent or budget but to give the entire film an emotional core.  In my opinion, it works.

Robert Pattinson’s performance as Connie is the final make-or-break element of the film, and ultimately what Good Time‘s success hinges on, and he certainly pulls it off.  He manages to make Connie a realistic person and a relatable one.  We may not approve of his criminal lifestyle, but we can definitely see that underneath it all is a confused man who loves his brother above everything.  Pattinson delivers a character that is at once tough and vulnerable, intelligent and charismatic, yet also willfully ignorant and selfish, and it all works to make a truly three dimensional human being.  With Good Time, Pattinson shows there is a lot more to him than he was able to show off in the Twilight series.

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Final verdict:  Good Time is an unusual film in that it takes a lot of chances, all of those chances work, yet it still doesn’t manage to elevate itself above the level of an interesting study.  Perhaps it’s its subject matter, crime movies are hardly original, perhaps it’s its hyper-realism, we have all had nights like the one focused on in this film, but the circumstances are too foreign to really relate to, but Good Time is a movie that is more fascinating than entertaining.  The Safdie brothers have given us a movie that film scholars will truly appreciate, but that general audiences will most likely find dull and disjointed.  If you are the type who goes to a film largely for intellectual reasons, then I recommend Good Time, but most others won’t get a great deal out of Good Time other than a feeling of “what the hell did I just watch?”.

Baby Driver (Wright; 2017)

Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World.  All four of these films are cult classics, if not just outright classics without the cult attached, and all four were written and directed by Edgar Wright.  That would make for an impressive enough resume, but what makes it even more impressive is that, for major motion pictures, that is its entirety  There is no Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers, no Kurosawa’s Dreams, no Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, there is, so far no bad movie marring an otherwise perfect record.  So, when Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver was announced it was to a good deal of anticipation and fanfare, and I’m happy to say the fanfare is deserved and the perfect record is still intact.

The reason Edgar Wright keeps making classics is because he keeps sticking to what he does best and that is taking a genre and half paying homage, half satrizing, and stylizing the hell out of said genre while using it to skewer the way we live our lives.  Wright actually switches up the formula mildly, because while it is most certainly a stylized genre filck, there is little of the satire, humor, or society skewering which is half of Wright’s trademark style.  What Wright gives us this time is a slick, smart, but straightforward crime movie.  Baby (Andel Elgort) was orphaned at a very young age, and the auto accident which killed his parents left him with tinnitis (a permanent ringing in the ears) and an obsession with cars.  A run in with crime lord Doc (Kevin Spacey) at a slightly older, but still very young, age left Baby with a debt he had to repay and, so he now works as Doc’s permanent get away driver in a crew of otherwise constantly rotating criminals including Jon Hamm as Buddy, Eliza Gonzalez as Darling, and Jamie Foxx as Bats.

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These characters are all compelling due to a real sense of motivation, dialogue that is both natural and clever, and performances that exemplify a commitment to the art of bringing a fictional person to life.  While there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, it is Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez who truly go above and beyond in Baby Driver and steal every single scene they are in as their Bonnie and Clyde-esque criminal lovers who eventually reveal themselves to be far more unstable than their charming exteriors would suggest.  These two give two of the most accurate portrayals of true sociopaths I’ve ever seen captured in film in the way they disarm even the viewer with their charisma and false empathy all the while caring about nothing beyond themselves.

The camerawork is also excellent here, though, a few of the action pieces which do not involve cars did get a little dark and muddled, allowing us to experience the intense pacing of Baby Driver with very little confusion or lack of perspective.  The excellent choreography of both the actual action pieces as well as the cameras which capture these pieces show a true area of growth for Wright as a film maker as, while he has always focused on action genres in his previous films, he has never before been given a budget this large nor a story which relies so much on truly death defying stunt work, and he handles it all at a level that embarrasses many directors who have been putting together high spectacle action films their entire careers (yes, I’m still angry at you for last week Michael Bay).

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The use of music in the movie is also invigorating.  Due to Baby’s tinnitis, he listens to music throughout nearly the entire running time of the film to show that music is a never ending obsession of his because it drowns out the ringing in his ears, and other reasons which would enter into spoiler territory.  The music selection is mostly older, but it does run a gamut from the incredibly popular and overplayed to the “how have I never heard this song?, I love this band” level of exposure, and it really adds an additional level of fun to the film in very much the way the Awesome Mixes did in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

What really makes the film shine, though, is the way all of these elements are edited together into a cohesive whole.  We get why the characters are criminals, and we appreciate their motivations and quirks.  We ooh and ahh at the stunts and the excellent cinematography being used to capture them, and the tunes get our foots tapping and our heads bobbing .  When the car is spinning and the guns blazing in the rhythm of the hip hop beat as the graffiti going by in the background portrays the lyrics of song on the        I-Pod and the banter even starts to go along with the beat, that’s when we realize what a true work of love we are experiencing.  The visuals, acting, and screenwriting are all very well done, but the editing is the real masterwork on display.

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All that is not to say Baby Driver doesn’t have its share of problems, though, and a couple fairly serious ones at that.  The first is that by removing Wright’s sense of satire, we really don’t have much more going on here than a remarkably pretty series of action set pieces broken up by bits of banter.  There is no lesson to be learned here, no exploration of character, and no real insight into our universe.  The love story is believable, but ultimately pretty banal for a movie, and even the pseudo familial ties ultimately are nothing more than an excuse for be involved in a certain power dynamic.

The other, and I feel slightly more serious, problem is one of pacing, though not a typical issue in which the director couldn’t quite get the timing of action versus plot advancement.  In Baby Driver we get incredible action right off the bat letting us see right away the creative and kinetic journey we have ahead of us, and while the film never ceases being intelligent, frantic, and stylish, it also never surpasses what it gives us at the start.  This leaves us with a movie that plateaus immediately and never really builds to a climactic resolution, leaving us a bit disappointed without really completely understanding why at the end.

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Final verdict:  Edgar Wright continues his legacy of excellence with Baby Driver, but this most likely is a film that will remembered more as a film made by Edgar Wright than as a film which stands as great under its own merit.   Despite its problems, there is a lot more to like here than to dislike, an awful lot more, but this is also certainly a film that many will walk away from feeling it was overhyped and will suffer a hit of reputation due to this.  Baby Driver is a fun, stylish, fantastic crime movie which will leave nearly everyone satisfied.  Just understand that on the Edgar Wright scale, this is closer to The World’s End than Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.