Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve; 2017)

Making a sequel to the classic 1982 Harrison Ford science fiction film Blade Runner is either tremendously gutsy or stupid or both.  While it initially bombed at the box office, it has always been a critical success and it didn’t take long at all after its theater run for word of mouth to make Blade Runner a film which is now considered one of the greatest films ever made by many, and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made by so many that even its few detractors have to admit it’s something special.  In 2013, Denis Villeneuve caught the attention of smart filmgoers and Hollywood executives alike with Enemy.  Two years later he repeated his success in a more acceptably mainstream way with Sicario.  Then Arrival in 2016.  Denis Villeneuve finally gets his career making or breaking job with Blade Runner 2049, and not only is it certainly a career making job it’s one that cements him as one of the finest working directors and a man with the potential to be spoken about alongside the likes of Kubrick, Scorcese, and Hitchcock as one of the best directors of all time for giving us intelligent but also thrilling cinema.

Blade Runner‘s tone is instantly recognizable, yet also a little hard to grasp and explain.  It seems like it should be an action movie, yet it takes its time spacing the action far apart and getting it over with quickly.  It seems like mainstream science fiction, but it has camera work that so lovingly frames its painstakingly built world it’s more an art piece.  It seems like a simple good humans versus evil robots presence, but it’s really a treatise on what it means to be human.  Blade Runner 2049 understands all of this, and not only repeats it but manages to add more to the experience while also raising it to the next level.

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The tone and pacing which was the make or break element in the original Blade Runner for most is repeated in Blade Runner 2049.  Once again, we have a film which takes its time establishing its settings in silence before moving ahead with the action, a film which isn’t afraid to linger for a moment longer than usual on an empty room or a skyline.  While most appreciated this aspect of Blade Runner, there are those who say it makes the film boring.  Blade Runner 2049 uses this same style while also adding 45 minutes to the running time, so if you are in the Blade Runner is dull category, you will most likely feel the same about the sequel.

You’ll notice I didn’t do my usual brief plot summary of the film, and that is because to say anything about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 would be to spoil more than I like.  But, just like the original it is a story integrally tied to its themes.  It’s also a story which piggy backs both its plot and themes directly from the original in a way which both flows naturally and yet is also an entirely original creation.  In Blade Runner we were asked to think about what it means to be human and what our creations say about us, in 2049 we are asked again, and more dealing with memory, success, and the idea of our creations themselves becoming creators.

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The Vangelis soundtrack of Blade Runner was essential in establishing its unique dreamlike tone, and Blade Runner 2049 mimics that original soundtrack excellently with a gorgeous score from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer.  Just like the story, the score mimics in exactly the way it needs to, yet still sets is self apart as its own entity showing us that the music just like everything else in Blade Runner 2049 is an evolution not a copy.

The cast of Blade Runner 2049 does the incredible job you would expect from this group of talented veterans.  Ryan Gosling in the lead, point of view role of “K” the replicant Blade Runner, does a fantastic job of portraying the artificial cop torn between doing what he was created and programmed for and his Pinocchio-like journey of self discovery and fulfillment which conflicts with his duties.  Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard, now confirmed to be a replicant, and gives us his best stuff despite being very vocal in the past about not liking nor truly understanding the first film.  Robin Wright is excellent as Ks boss/owner in the police department who brings a new twist to the role of hard ass cop with a soft spot for her subordinate, and relative newcomer Ana de Armas is a true revelation and a wonderful surprise in her part as K’s holographic companion.

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The crowning glory of Blade Runner 2049, though, is its visuals.  The special effects, art direction, and cinematography combine to make every frame a work of art.  The original Blade Runner practically invented the visual aesthetic of what we call cyberpunk, Blade Runner 2049‘s advanced technology and bigger budget takes that world we largely viewed from a distance and puts us right in the middle of it.  We get to look out the windshields of the flying cars as we weave between buildings, we interact with the larger than life holographic advertising which fills every available empty space, and we get to walk along streets then into alleys then through doorways filled with the desperate people of an overpopulated resource plundered world.  All this taken in and framed with the eye of a true auteur who makes the dystopia somehow beautiful and haunting and you have a masterpiece of visual artistry.

Final recommendation:  If you found the original Blade Runner overrated and dull, then you are not the audience for its sequel.  If you call yourself one of the millions, if not close to billions, of people who are a fan of the original, though, what you are getting in Blade Runner 2049 is more than just a continuation of the original story, much more than just an homage.  Blade Runner 2049 takes everything that made the original one of the greatest science fiction films of all time and somehow brings it to a level even greater.  Its themes are explored with even more nuance and depth, its characters more three dimensional and fascinating, its story even more gripping and surprising, and its visuals are of the sort that not just win awards, but which are shown off as examples which revolutionize the art of film making.  Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, a more than worthy successor to the original, and of course I recommend it as wholeheartedly as is possible.

 

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.

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.

 

 

Detroit (Bigelow; 2017)

Before I begin the review proper, I’m going to allow myself a bit of a tangential rant on the way the actual city of Detroit is used, or rather not used, in fictional portrayals of the city.  It seems that if a film is set in the city of Detroit it is nearly always filmed somewhere else.  Robocop was filmed in Dallas.  Assault on Precinct 13 and Detroit Rock City were filmed in Toronto, as was Four Brothers.  Don’t Breathe was filmed largely in Hungary.  There are a few films that take place in Detroit which were actually shot in Detroit such as the Detroit scenes in Beverly Hills Cop and the Red Dawn remake, but for the most part Detroit is used as a generic city which won’t be recognized such as in Regarding Henry, Batman v. Superman, and the Transformers movies.  As a resident of Detroit, to find out Detroit was shot primarily in Boston was a bit of an insult.  Rant over.

Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood right now giving as dramatic critical darlings that border on action films in that they deal with subjects that are normally considered hypermasculine but she often eschews the pure action you would expect from her subject matter to give us gripping, often downright brutal, drama instead.  Her latest film Detroit does just this using an unusual five act structure in which we don’t even meet our characters until the second act nor delve into the main focus of the film’s plot until the third.  Detroit takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots in which 150 blocks of the city had to be shut off from the world outside, and the entire city had to be put on a curfew and patrolled by Detroit and State Police as well as the National Guard for 5 days.  Since it is coming out on the 50th Anniversary of these events, and not by coincidence, of course, Detroit is being marketed as the story of the Detroit riots, but it really isn’t.  Detroit uses the riots as its backdrop and setting, but the story focuses on an incident which occurred at the Algiers Motel in which three black men were found murdered and many others beaten.

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The screenplay for Detroit, as mentioned earlier, uses a five act structure which makes for some unusual story telling.  The first act is devoted entirely to setting up the mood and the situation by showing us how the riots began and how they spread.  This means we don’t even meet the focal characters of the story until the second act, and a lot of time is spent on them before we get to the real meat of the story in the third act.  This methodology makes for a film in which you aren’t really sure what the film you are watching wants you to focus on for a large chunk of its running time, but I believe all this set up pays off in how immersive and gripping the story ultimately becomes after you really get to know both the main characters and the level of lawlessness and fear going on around them.  I won’t spoil the story by going on at length about the focus of the last two acts, but I will say that I also don’t believe there is any way they could have gripped our attention the way they do if we didn’t have an intimate connection with the characters involved by the time we get to this part of their story.

Detroit is a brutal, unrelenting, and unfortunately very contemporary movie.  I would say that the film has more in common with a horror film than an action movie or thriller, in fact, though this horror is one that actually happened and could still very easily actually happen today.  Bigelow’s film shows us either that history repeats itself, or that very little has changed in the past 50 years, as the events on screen are ones we could imagine seeing on the evening news any given night.  The story is brutal and modern enough that I imagine Detroit is going to trigger anger in a great many people of many different races and beliefs bringing up cries of racism, reverse racism, injustice, distortion, and many, many other sensitive buzzwords which lead to loud arguments and worse.

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The acting and camera work are both top notch featuring a very large ensemble cast.  You’ll recognize John Boyega (Finn from the new “Star Wars” series) as a security guard trying to diffuse racial tensions, Hannah Murray (Gilly in “Game of Thrones”) as a party girl from Ohio who gets caught up in the events at the hotel, and Anthony Mackie (Falcon from the Marvel Studio movies) as an ex-veteran staying at the motel right away, and most of the rest of the large cast will at least seem familiar (and probably are).  All do a fantastic job making us believe that we are really reliving the intense events which took place 50 years ago, and all give us three dimensional real characters we can recognize and relate to.  As for the visuals, I do have a minor issue with the amount of shaky cam used throughout the film, but for the most part it was competent to excellent cinematography which captured both the action and the moods of the film unobtrusively which is saying something since so much of the action takes place in constrained bordering on claustrophobic environments.

Whenever a film is based on actual historic events there is nearly always some doubt as to its accuracy, and Detroit is no exception, but two of the survivors of the Algiers Motel that night 50 years ago were actually on set for the filming of Detroit working with the cast and crew to give their take on the events.  Both have given their stamp of approval to the film, so if it isn’t completely authentic, it’s at least close enough that two of those who the film really portrays are happy.

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Final verdict:  Bigelow does yet again what she does so well, takes what in different hands would be an action/thriller and turns it into compelling character driven drama.  Detroit is going to be a controversial film as it is brutal, unrelenting, and focuses on themes which are incredibly divisive in the here and now, but that is what makes it so important.  Detroit is not light entertainment, I also would not call it educational as its story is more narrowly focused than you would expect from a historical drama, but it is powerful and it makes an equally powerful statement about race, entitlement, power, and desperation.  Detroit won’t be easy for many to watch, both due to subject matter and its unusual story structure, and even more difficult for many to confront, but its powerful and insightful message is one that demands your attention.

 

 

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.