The Snowman (Alfredson; 2017)

Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian crime novellist known the world over for revolutionizing modern crime fiction and has won a great many awards in addition to his popularity.  Tomas Alfredson is a Swedish film director known in the United States primarily for the Academy Award nominated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as well as the horror classic Let the Right One In.  You would think that putting these two gentlemen together along with the phenomenal acting talent of Michael Fassbender would guarantee a quality film just awaiting critical acclaim and the attention of the film awards circuit.  That, however, is not to be the fate of The Snowman, a film which despite the pedigree of its acting, writing, and directing talents went horribly wrong.

The film opens with a series of camera shots you would expect in a Bourne film fight scene with a series of quick close ups and zoom outs cut together so quickly you barely have a moment to make out what you are seeing on screen.  But, this isn’t an action scene.  It’s just following a man entering a house then sitting at a table.  It’s an interesting choice that the most mundane action possible is filmed via frantic camerawork, but this is only done once.  Shortly after this we have a strange zoom through the windshield of a car which is reminiscent of an effect someone would use to show a space ship going into faster than light travel in a science fiction film, but it’s used for someone who is just pulling out of their garage normally.  One shot of this drive uses a very obvious CGI close up of the back of the car so out of date it looks like it was created in 1992, but none of the rest of the drive uses CGI at all, and again, it’s for the most part just a normal drive through a snowy landscape.  No high speed chase, no stunt work.  Again, nothing like this is shown again in the movie.  It’s just a strange choice for no obvious reason.

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The acting choices made throughout the film are also odd, so odd that there were times if I wondered if anyone in the movie had ever actually met another human being before.  Two characters will stare meaningfully at one another as if they were sharing some dark secret silently that only they know, or perhaps one is warning the other that they know what the other is up to only to find in the very next scene seconds later that the two have never met and are now being introduced.  Fassbender’s Harry Hole at one point attacks a person doing repair work on his apartment, and chases the repair person into the street, and we never know why nor hear from the character of the repair person again.  In fact, stares, awkward silences, and two people seemingly having completely different conversations as they speak past one another seems more common in this film than normal, recognizable human interaction.

I think these strange choices all have a reason which was found out near the film’s end, but that reason is in itself so bizarre if I am correct that it just adds yet another strange choice to the myriad of others rather than clarify anything.  Without spoiling anything, one of the characters has a trait that is a major influence on the actions of another, and all this monkeying around with strange interactions and camera work seems to be a hint to the audience about this character trait.  The trouble is that not only could this trait have been far more easily shown in mere seconds than by hinting for an entire movie, but there also seems no reason whatsoever to keep that trait a secret from the audience.

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There are some gorgeous shots of the Norwegian landscape in The Snowman, as well as some excellent framing of the city of Oslo, though I have to wonder does every house in Norway have windows on the inside so people can see into living rooms and bedrooms and the like?  Even the film being set in Norway is odd since every character speaks in English, American English, for the entire film with no establishing that they are actually speaking in Norwegian but are being broadcast in English for the sake of ease.  In the end, there is no reason to have the film set in Norway over anywhere else in the world, so why not just relocate the film to a cold climate in the United States if they are speaking American English?  This is a nitpick more than a major complaint, but when added to everything else in the film, it is just one more strange, pointless decision added to the pile.

Add all these factors together, and the crime thriller element of The Snowman just does not work partially because you are so distracted by the amateurism on display and partially because you are too busy laughing and scratching your head to be engaged in the plot.  Michael Fassbender was once an actor who would get my excited for his next project, and was good enough that I was willing to give what seemed bad choices the benefit of the doubt, but with his last few films including X-Men: Apocalypse, Assassin’s Creed, Alien: Covenant, and now The Snowman I have to now label him as an excellent actor who makes horrible decisions as to which roles to play.

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Final verdict:  The Snowman is not quite so incompetently made as to be so bad it’s entertaining, but many of its scenes are and film as a whole only barely misses that mark.  Incomprehensible writing, acting, and directorial decisions add up to make a film which leaves the audience more concerned with the ineptitude of the film makers than with the actual story.  Unless a handful of good shots of snowy landscapes are enough to pique your interest, there is nothing of value in The Snowman to recommend.  While the story itself does make sense, nothing about the way that story is put together does.

 

 

American Made (Liman; 2017)

Doug Liman, the director of this latest Tom Cruise vehicle, has a fairly hit or miss career as a director to date.  The Bourne Identity is now a classic which revitalized and revolutionized the spy genre, Swingers is a cult comedy classic, and Edge of Tomorrow (also titled Live, Die, Repeat in one of the worst marketing blunders in film history) was one of the biggest surprises of 2014 and is destined to become something of a sci-fi classic in its own right.  He also brought us Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Jumper, and I’m betting the only reason you remember one of these movies is more for behind the scenes tabloid level drama than the film itself.  So, I wasn’t sure which Doug Liman we’d be getting as I went in to see American Made, I kept my expectations moderate, and leaving the theater I was pleasantly surprised having seen a film that I would rank up there amongst the films I just called classics – and while it’s going to take some more time and perspective to really classify American Made, my first impression and instinct is that I like it even more than two of those three great ones.

American Made is the Hollywoodized true story of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot recruited by the CIA to spy on the Soviet backed Nicaraguan Contras toward the tail end of the ’70s.  It’s the story of the beginning of the War on Drugs and its connection to the Iran-Contra scandals, but it’s the story told through the point of view of one of its lesser known central figures, which makes for an experience that’s both familiar and fresh at the same time.

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I probably shouldn’t have been so tepid in my expectations for American Made since it is pairing up Cruise and Liman for a second time, and Cruise has always shown he can give one hell of a great performance when paired up with a director who understands him, and Liman has already proven once before that he works really well with Cruise.  I won’t oversell Cruise’s performance here as one of the best of the year, but it is quintessential fun, charming Cruise.  Most of what Cruise gives us as Barry Seal is the manic charm that seems to take far more energy than a man in his 50’s seems capable of giving, but there is a nuanced vulnerability here, as well, that we see in many of Cruise’s best works. While he’s always go-go-go, we can also sense that Seal knows he is capable of making a bad decision despite his chutzpah and talent, and that bad decision which could ruin his life and his family is a nearly visible burden Cruise manages to subtly portray giving Seal a dimension which is all too often absent in your typical Tom Cruise action thriller.

The supporting cast also does a wonderful, if never quite spectacular, job bringing us a group of characters which are familiar enough to ground us but never dip into stereotype.  Domnhall Gleason as Schafer, Seal’s CIA recruiter, is definitely the shifty, never know exactly what he’s up to character we’ve come to expect from a middle-man secret agent type, but he also displays a lack of confidence in his own abilities that is incredibly rare in this same type of character making him a unique, memorable figure.  Sarah Wright as Lucy Seal, Barry’s wife, is also excellent truly embodying a family focused woman who loves her husband and children more than anything, hates what he’s doing, but is blinded by the money coming to the family so much she overlooks her own values and instincts.  She, in fact, is probably the most three dimensional and well acted character in the entire ensemble, and if I were to pick out a possible award winner to come out of this film, it would be her.

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The visuals of the film are excellent.  While I’m sure there is some CGI in the film, a scene in which two planes touch wings is one instance that comes to mind, it’s not at all obvious and it seems like what we are viewing is a combination of excellent cinematography combined with practical stunts and effects.  The cinematography really is excellent with its combination of gorgeous aerial shots and more practical yet still stylistic work when the action is grounded.  It’s nothing I would ever call truly artistic, but it most definitely has a style which meshes perfectly with its screenplay.

That screenplay is the most stand out element of American Made, a film which I obviously feel has quite a few stand out elements.  The tone and structure is one which reminds me a great deal of The Big Short from a few years back in that it educates its audience on a series of events that we are familiar with but may be lacking on details unless we are a scholar on the era and events, that education is not just on the history but also looks forward to how those events effect us today, and it does it all with a light, entertaining touch which makes the lesson oh-so-easy to take in that we don’t even realize we’re learning as much as we are until the film is over.  Combine that with the excellent character work mentioned earlier and snappy, witty dialogue, and you have the makings of a truly memorable bit of writing.

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Final verdict:  American Made is yet another highlight in a year filled with so many of them.  It’s an important film with not an ounce of pretentiousness.  It’s a film with true weight and depth, but with such a light touch there is nearly no effort on the part of the audience to take in its insight.  It’s a film which is equal parts comedy, thriller, biopic, crime film, spy movie, and true history, and it works on every single one of those levels.  There are not many audiences I would not recommend American Made to, though I have a feeling those with a kinder vision of the Reagan era than the movie portrays may be offended by some of what the movie has to say, but I will also say that as fantastic as the film is, I don’t think many, if any, would pick it as their favorite film of the year.  As odd as it sounds, the film may be perhaps too well made because it seems to lack the spark of humanity present in the greatest works of art.  Still, this is one hell of a well made film, and if the premise interests you in the least I’d have to think you will get a lot out of it.  It’s good enough that I think it will even thrill a great many who find nothing to grab them from the marketing campaign alone.

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?”.

Wind River (Sheridan; 2017)

The Western as a film genre pokes its head out every now and then every few years, but it’s been done as a regular Hollywood staple for roughly half a century.  For the past three years, however, Taylor Sheridan has been slyly bringing the genre back with a modern twist.  The Western takes on many forms, but it always takes place in the American West, of course, and it focuses on white men taming a frontier they are new to.  Once white civilization has taken over a territory, the film focusing on that place can no longer be called a Western.  Taylor Sheridan’s films all take place in rural Western communities, the twist being that these communities are in areas which have long since been tamed, but they are now largely overlooked.  In his film debut as a writer (Sheridan has been an actor for a long time) he gave us Sicario, the modern take on the Federales vs Banditos Western.  The next year he gave us Hell or High Water which is the modern retelling of the sheriff vs outlaws story.  Now, he writes and directs the classic cowboys and Indians Western, Wind River.

Wind River‘s central character is a Department of Fish, Game, and Wildlife agent named Cory Lambert played (Jeremy Renner).  He describes his job as hunting predators, and while doing his job hunting down a trio of mountain lions who killed one of his father-in-law’s cattle he comes across the body of a young girl from the nearby Wind River Reservation where his father-in-law lives.  After notifying the authorities, Cory finds himself working with the reservation’s Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and young FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, which means, yes, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch are the two main characters in the film).  Jane is new enough to the FBI that she doesn’t really know how to handle the situation, but smart and self aware enough to realize this and convinces Cory to work the case with her by asking him to help her by doing his job and hunt down a predator.  It seems Cory has personal reasons to help, as well, and solving the murder mystery becomes the driving force of Wind River‘s plot, if not really the heart of its story.

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In Sicario Sheridan tells a story in which the law are just as corrupt as the criminals they are hunting, and the only difference between the two is who is pulling the organizational strings.  Hell or High Water shows us the banks being robbed are far more immoral and dangerous than the criminals doing the robbery, and even those on the side of the law are aware of this.  Wind River gives us a brutal metaphor which barely even counts as metaphor due to its lack of subtlety of how white civilization has treated the Native Americans since they were conquered and forced onto reservations.  He is intelligent enough to not make matters so black and white (no pun intended) than one side is completely sympathetic and the other completely despicable, but this modern cowboy and Indians story shows what affect 100 years plus of brutality and neglect by one group to another can have on the group on the receiving end of said neglect.

Sheridan’s script is up to his normal insanely high standards.  In addition to a plot which is gripping and meaningful he also serves up authentic but still engaging dialogue.  His metaphors will be a bit too much on the nose for some tastes, however, I don’t think the thematic elements of a story have to be subtle to be effective, and here Sheridan makes sure you can’t ignore his message.  The characters he creates are never stereotypes nor generalities, and that is still the case here as he gives us real three dimensional people with pasts which resonate strongly through their goals and actions, and he makes sure we understand why even the most despicable among them, and he gives us some of his most despicable characters to date in Wind River, act the way they do.

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The direction, however, is not up to the usual near perfection of a Taylor Sheridan film as Sheridan himself decided to direct this one and not hand off the reins to someone else, and while he is an excellent apparently natural talent, his lack of experience does show in a few areas.  The pacing is a bit off at times, showing that Sheridan most likely had a hard time editing himself, a very common mistake made by writer/directors.  The camera work, too, is on the basic side as conversations between people tend to devolve into scenes where the camera shoots whichever character is speaking at a mid-distance, then switches to the other person when they speak, and back and forth until the conversation ends.  Some of his shots of nature, however, can be quite spectacular, and the contrast between functional but dull and beautiful can actually add to the pacing problems felt from the not perfect editing.

The acting is also excellent for the most part, with most of the actors doing justice to the excellent script.  The minor roles, however, can be performed amateurishly breaking the story’s flow at times when a performance not quite up to the same snuff as the others stands out.  Still, if a character has a name, then the actor portraying that character is excellent, and this may in fact be the best performances of both Renner’s and Olsen’s careers.

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Final verdict:  Taylor Sheridan gave us one of the best films of 2015 and of 2016. and so far Wind River is absolutely one of the best films of 2017, though it is just a bit more flawed than his previous two efforts.  Sheridan has proven himself that he is one of the greatest working screen writers, and while it is only a matter of time before he wins an Oscar if he keeps going at this rate, this year will not be the one.  Wind River does not quite reach the must see status of Sicario and Hell or High Water, but it is still absolutely fantastic, and I will bump it up to must see status if you, like me, find great writing to be the best element of film making.  No matter your general tastes or inclinations, though, Wind River is an amazing film that should be seen, it just may be worth waiting until you can rent it to do so.

 

 

Logan Lucky (Soderbergh; 2017)

The very first scene in the latest film from Ocean’s 11s famed director Steven Soderbergh gives us a man doing repair work on an automobile as a young girl, roughly 8-10 years-old, chats with him and helps.  It’s apparent nearly immediately that this is a father and a daughter, that the little girl knows a lot about tools, and that her father is honestly interested in helping the girl with a beauty pageant she’ll be participating in soon.  This short, simple set up is a perfect introduction which says a lot more than it would seem possible about the film you are about to see, for Logan Lucky at its core is a movie about characters who seem to be a stereotype on the surface, who constantly surprise us with the seemingly out of character knowledge they possess, and who have this knowledge because of their strong, genuine familial connections.

Logan Lucky stars Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan, the central figure of the Logan family, which includes his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) a bartender who lost an arm in military service, Mellie (Riley Keough) his younger hairdresser sister, his aforementioned daughter Sadie (Farrah MacKenzie), Bobbie Jo Chapman (Katie Holmes) his ex-wife, and Moody Chapman (David Denman) his ex’s current husband of some indeterminate but long time and owner of several car dealerships.  The Logans seem to have some sort of family curse, though only Clyde seems to really believe this wholeheartedly, and are further set apart from your standard movie extended family by being largely drama free.  Everyone seems to like each other, even the two fathers, and do what they need to keep the others in their lives happy.  However, when Jimmy loses his job at the exact same time Moody decides he is taking their family out of state to open a new dealership, Jimmy decides drastic measures need to be taken so he can maintain his close relationship with his daughter, and those drastic measures involve robbing the local NASCAR track, the same NASCAR track which had just fired him from his job.

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You need to go into Logan Lucky knowing that this is more than just a heist film, and I don’t mean that in an artistic “this is deeper than it appears” way, I mean it literally.   While it is billed as a heist film, largely due to Soderbergh’s direction I imagine, the heist is only one part of a much larger story which is also part family drama, part prison break,  and part police procedural.  After the heist portion of the film was over, I’d guessed the movie itself was pretty much over with just loose ends left to wrap up, but the movie kept going and going for quite some time afterward, long enough to weave in an additional major character and an entire subplot.  This threw me as for the last 40 to 50 minutes of the film I kept expecting it to wrap up at any time, and had me leaving the theater thinking the film had serious pacing problems, but in actuality it was my expectations of Logan Lucky I’d gotten from its marketing campaign that was the real problem.  Part of me wants to see the film again (and, I’m sure I will one day) to verify if the issue is honestly one with the film or with myself, but I can say for sure that knowing about this quirk of the plot’s structure will make for a smoother experience.

Aside from that, I have little but praise for Logan Lucky.  The script by Rebecca Blunt combined with Soderbergh’s direction give us a story which, while not that creative, is hilarious, charming, and often surprising.  Much like the characters, the story is one that on the surface is very, perhaps overly, familiar, but the individual pieces that make the story move are a constant source of offbeat epiphany.  The source of both the humor and the drama in Logan Lucky come from our own discoveries of why the unexpected make perfect sense with nary a fart joke nor artificial dramatic contrivance to be seen.

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The most impressive element of Logan Lucky, though, is the fact that the entire cast is made up of real actors.  For a long time the A-List movie stars in Hollywood have been movie stars, not actors.  They have enough charisma that we love watching them, and we pay to do so over and over again, but we are really just watching them be their magnetic selves with minor variation.  The cast of Logan Lucky are actors.  Real actors.  Daniel Craig transforms into country bumpkin chemistry savant Joe Bangs so thoroughly that his speech, his body language, and even the look in his eyes won’t give even the slightest of hints that he is also James Bond.

While due to his fame, Craig’s transformation may the most impressive, it’s Riley Keough’s performance that really makes me sit up and take notice as I think this is a girl of incredible talent who we will be seeing a lot of in the near future.  Her most famous role was as the red headed wife Capable in Mad Max: Fury Road.  Earlier this year she played the wife in the young family who join the main characters in It Comes At Night, and that performance was made impressive in that she had to not only play the role straight, she also had to play the role as a fantasy of one of the other characters, and neither of those portrayals was even a bit reminiscent of Capable.  Here she is again, in another completely different role again so different from her others that I probably would not have immediately recognized her had her talent not caught my attention in her previous acting work.  I’m waiting for her to do a musical, because if she can sing as well as she can do drama and comedy, then the amount of talent she has is downright unfair.

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Final verdict:  Logan Lucky is easily the best crime movie of the year, so far, ranks right up there with the best comedies, and shows some real heart on top of that.  The well written script isn’t without its flaws, but the acting is award worthy.  The only reason I don’t list Logan Lucky as a must see film is because it does have a lack of true depth, and that may bother those who go to see a movie primarily for intellectual reasons, but if you’re looking to laugh, cheer, and emote, then Logan Lucky will push all the right buttons, and its ending will even give you something to think about once the final frame has flashed by.

 

 

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.

Free Fire (Wheatley; 2016)

The first thing you notice about Free Fire, the British film from studio A24 which is now getting a wide release after making its away around the world via the film festival circuit, is that it has one hell of a great cast.  Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Brie Larson are all three darlings of the independent film crowd and Brie Larson is right on the cusp of becoming an A-Lister with both action and serious drama credentials, plus Sharito Copley had his day when he showed he had some serious talent in District 9.  The second thing you notice is that after a short opening, the film is essentially one long gunfight, and the third thing is that there is only one setting in Free Fire‘s entire running length.

The premise of Free Fire is a simple one.  Justine (Brie Larson) has set up a meeting between some IRA members led by Chris (Cilliam Murphy) and a group of gun runners led by Vernon (Sharito Copley).  Despite a few hiccups, the meeting is going fine until one of the grunts on the gun runners’ team recognizes one of the grunts on the IRA’s team as someone he had a serious run in at a bar the night before.  Things degenerate quickly and we spend the rest of the movie watching them make quips and shoot at each other. That’s really about the entirety of the movie.

The great actors do are definitely on their game here, all giving charismatic, energetic performances to the level we’ve come to expect from this crew.  Unfortunately, that is all the good that can really be said about the film.  While the performances are excellent, the characters themselves have next to nothing to differentiate them, the dialogue they are given to work with is repetitive and generic and the situation they are placed in is ultimately fairly mundane.   This was actually a hard film to review since all there really is to say is that great actors give great performances, but there is absolutely nothing else of any worth on display here.

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That is, until I realized this is a perfect opportunity to talk  about how to recognize the director’s influence in a film by demonstrating an absolute failure on Ben Wheatley’s part in Free Fire (he is also co-writer on the film with Amy Jump, which may also explain a few of the failures).  The director is essentially the foreman or the manager on a film crew, overseeing every aspect of a film’s production even if he doesn’t directly handle any of those functions (though, he often can).  Therefore, the ultimate vision of what a film becomes lies squarely in the director’s hands, the tone, the themes, the style all come directly from the director’s vision of what he wants the film to be, and it is his responsibility to make sure everyone in the cast and crew understands and follows that vision.

Free Fire‘s first problem is that it has no idea what tone it wants to follow.  The lack of stunts, the single setting, and circumstances surrounding the action of the film suggest a gritty crime drama.  The quippy dialogue, the fact that people are shot over and over but never receive more than flesh wounds, and choices of music and a few exaggerated stereotypes suggest a comic tone.  If I had to guess, Wheatley was trying for a Tarantino or Guy Ritchie style film with witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and gritty action mixing to make a mixed tense and hilarious experience, but he never marries the styles together and ends up with a mess.  Even the actors themselves never quite get in sync with all their admittedly excellent performances seeming to come from different movies, Larson acts for an over the top action thriller, Copley is in a wry comedy, and Murphy gives a performance that belongs in a historical drama.

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The different acting styles are practically the only thing differentiating the character’s, though, that and their accents, so maybe it’s a good thing the different styles were so discordant.  Larson stands out as the only female character, but everyone else is dressed in a garish 70’s style outfit, most of them suits, most of them blue or grey, all the men have very similar facial hair, again garish 70’s style, and even the people he chose to cast look as if they could be related.  The only real stand out among the men is Armie Hammer due to his height, deeper voice, and slightly different hairstyle, all the others blend together to the point where you really have to concentrate to differentiate who is who, especially once the action starts.  This very well could be because of Wheatley’s vision, but if it was it was a poor idea, and if it wasn’t it was something he should have caught and put a stop to.

Those action sequences do seriously add to the problem of differentiating the characters as most of the film is done with hand held cameras (not shaky cam, though, fortunately) so the shots are close up too much of the time.  This means that we’ll see a character screaming and firing a gun with no idea where he’s aiming, or we’ll see an area around someone being riddled with bullets, but with no idea even which direction they are coming from let alone who is doing the shooting.  It’s rare that we are given any sense of perspective in Free Fire, and this makes for a situation where the tension is taken out of much of the movie as we have no idea what exactly is going on, so we can’t get excited about the events.

Finally, the script is the final nail in Free Fire‘s coffin.  Wheatly gave us witty dialogue, sort of, sometimes, but since any line could come out of any character’s mouth interchangeably the wit is lost since it has no real context, it’s just random funny things random characters say.  I’ve already mentioned the tone, but those tonal issues stem directly from a script which had an idea, but nothing else, and even that idea is fairly rote and mundane, so the complete lack of a solid tone just adds confusion to the drabness.

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Final Verdict:  I can only guess Free Fire came about because some high talent actors had a weekend free and someone wanted to take advantage of that, because aside from the performances everything this movie has to show seems like it could have been put together over a long weekend.  Cardboard thin characters, a mundane plot, no tone to latch onto, and hard to follow cinematography, art direction, and editing make for a film impossible to recommend.  There are critics out there who like it, so apparently there are those out there who see something in Free Fire I’m missing, and it probably is worth a rental or a view on streaming service some day because there are a few real gut level chuckles to be had here, but overall the only thing Free Fire has going for it is charisma, and that isn’t enough in my humble opinion.