Thursday, June 29, 2017

Movie Review: Baby Driver

Baby Driver's name and much of the premise evokes Speed Racer, and the movie can almost be described as a re-imagining of the concept. In some ways, Baby and Debora bear a similarity to Speed and Trixie, though you'd be hard-pressed to find any other parallels among Baby Driver's cast.

I'd love to try watching this back-to-back with the Wachowski Sisters' 2008 adaptation - I think the two films would compliment each other, despite representing polar opposite approaches to automobile racing/chases. While the Wachowskis delighted in using CG to build an unapologetic cartoon world, Edgar Wright uses practical tools to transform the setting. Baby Driver's world is still surreal, but that emerges from pacing, editing, and music, rather than imagery. I love both movies and suspect the contrasts and similarities would be fascinating.

That's a rather long-winded way of trying to touch on the experience of watching Baby Driver, a beautifully intense homage to crime cinema. Homage is nothing new to Wright, who's probably best known for Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, but this represents a very different approach. There's still comedy, but it's far more muted than we're used to. The film is very much a work of genre, not a statement about it. And, unlike Shaun (and the other movies in Wright's Cornetto Trilogy), it starts and ends in that genre. There's no fake-out where it evolves from light comedy to horror; it's an action/crime movie, through and through.

I don't consider that an inherently good or bad thing, but crafting a movie with a relatively conventional approach to plot and character should raise expectations that those elements will be handled well. And, if there's anywhere the movie disappoints, it's here. The story is less original than I'd have liked, and two key characters, namely Baby and Debora, are under-developed.

I'm more forgiving of that with Baby. He almost seems more like a video game protagonist than a lead, but the movie's experience ties to this so completely, it's hard to view it as much of a flaw. Sure, he's more a force pushing forward than a developed character, but it's that force that makes the movie worth seeing.

Debora, on the other hand, is harder to hand wave. She's the movie's love interest, and by the end of the movie represents the bulk of Baby's motivation. And yet, there's really very little justification for her choices or the leads' mutual affection for each other. As far as I can tell, Baby loves her, because she talked to him, and she loves him, because... I guess the script calls for it?

Come to think of it, Wright's filmography doesn't include a lot of significant female roles, outside of fairly generic love interests. It might be a good idea for him to experiment with some new points of view, along with his shifts in genre.

Fortunately, the movie's other characters pick up a lot of the slack. Jon Hamm, Eiza González, and Jamie Foxx are all great, as is Kevin Spacey, who plays a character who could almost be an aging Keyser Söze. The script does a good job shuffling them to keep you guessing which represents the real threat.

Likewise, the story might be light, but the storytelling, driven forward by music and an instinct to escape danger, is expertly handled.

The script could have been better, but the direction was damn near perfect. The choreography and cinematography alone make this well worth a trip to the theater, especially if you could use a break from CG-heavy blockbusters.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

I'm seeing a lot of reviewers saying Wonder Woman is the best movie in the DC Extended Universe, which is really just a long-winded way of saying it's better than Man of Steel. That's true, incidentally, but I think we can set the bar a tad higher. How's this: exempting the Avengers, Wonder Woman is as good as - and quite possibly better than - any of the first installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That's not to say it's perfect - I've got some complaints coming later - but damn, it's good. And not just for the DCEU (fun fact: Wonder Woman's Tomatometer is higher than the sum of any two of the other three movies in the franchise). It's actually a really good movie.

So let's all just take a moment and breathe a sigh of relief.

Now then, let's get into the details, starting with what works. And there's no better place to begin than tone. Unlike its predecessors, this movie includes moments of levity. In addition to delivering some welcome fun, this also adds weight to the more somber moments.

They also get Themyscira and the Amazons right on a level that's stunning to behold. The island and its inhabitants are pitch-perfect - every second they're on screen is a gift. The Amazons are presented as an army of warriors, each fighting with a level of skill on par with Batman - I loved every second on the island.

Speaking of Amazons, this version of Diana is virtually flawless. A lot of the credit goes to Gal Gadot, who delivers an amazing performance, but I don't want to lose sight of what Patty Jenkins brings to the table. By building a movie around compassion, she gives Wonder Woman the emotional core she deserves. Incidentally, this is precisely what's been missing from the heroes of the DCEU to date.

Don't infer that the movie's emotional core detracts from the action, though - Jenkins delivers some phenomenal fights. Occasionally the CG gets a little obvious, but it's a small price to pay for actually being able to see what's happening.

Which brings us to yet another strong point: unlike the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman is actually presented in COLOR. After three movies where everything appears as shades of washed out grey, it's refreshing to see blues, greens, reds, and golds again. It's kind of sad this sort of thing needs to be heralded as a wise artistic choice (as opposed to the obvious default), but that's where we are.

What am I missing? Chris Pine is great as Steve Trevor - he balances gender-flipped damsel and pulp adventurer in a way that works, plus his banter with Wonder Woman is everything you'd hope for.

All that being said... the movie isn't perfect. In fact, there are a few fairly major issues.

The largest of which concerns the end. Without going into details, the plot kind of crumbles in order to bring in the "big bad" in the last act. This is a pretty common issue in the genre, but it's more disruptive than usual. Almost everything about the last fight feels wrong - the scale is too large a departure, the villain is bland, and there are some odd emotional beats.

That's the only flaw I'd describe as "objectively" wrong (i.e.: I think it hurts the movie whether or not you've heard of Wonder Woman before watching this). My other main problem concerns the movie's benching of the Greek goddesses.

Aside from a few call-outs in the context of objects (i.e.: Armor of Hephaestus, Lasso of Hestia), I only recall hearing the names of two Greek deities: Zeus and Ares. The origin of the Amazons (and of Diana) is certainly reduced to these two. Thematically, I'm more than a little bothered that the Amazons' power springs completely from a male patron.

That holds double for the version of Diana's origin story they went with. Yes, I realize there's precedent from the comics, but it was a mistake there, as well (which is why they've since reversed course).

I think that does it for the major complaints, though I have one more set of elements: the bizarre. There were a few decisions that didn't completely bother me but did leave me perplexed. I'm assuming you've seen the movie or don't care about spoilers if you're still reading, but just in case, I'm about to get a little more specific than I've been up to this point. Considered yourself warned.

Okay, the first did bother me a little, but I'm starting to rethink it in hindsight. The movie changes the mythology so the Greek gods were all killed by Ares. This is somewhat limiting in terms of future stories they can tell (unless they want to undo that choice, which wouldn't be all that hard). Still, it's a surprising alteration to the status quo.

Surprising, but maybe clever, depending on what they have planned, given that the classical premise of Jack Kirby's New Gods hangs on the death of the old. Originally, he was taking a swipe at the Avengers, but changing that to the Greek pantheon might make for an interesting connection. Plus, if they play up the divine aspect of the New Gods, it could allow them to give Wonder Woman a central role in the Justice League movie. Nothing wrong with that.

I also feel like I should mention the movie's two "lesser" villains. I actually liked them, but I'm a fan of over-the-top villains in this genre (you can all go to hell - Viper was awesome in The Wolverine). If you're less enthusiastic about this kind of absurdly evil bad guy, they could definitely grate on you. Personally, I'd take them over the movie's main villain in a heartbeat.

Next up is the era. Rather than set this in the present day or during the character's first appearances in WWII, they changed it to the first World War. I've read a few explanations why, some of which seem more plausible than others. Regardless of the rationale, I didn't really feel like the movie capitalized on the era. The suffrage movement was reduced to a throwaway line, and the novelty of this form of war was undercut by the presence of characters already broken and jaded by it.

All in all, I didn't feel like the movie would have changed at all if it had been set in WWII. The good news there is it didn't feel any worse for the change; it was just kind of an odd choice.

Lastly, the movie includes a minor frame story set in the present. This of course ties back to Batman v Superman and points ahead towards Justice League, as if they felt like they had to remind you it's part of a bigger world. It's not painful, but it really adds nothing (unlike the larger DCEU, which still adds nothing but is painful).

I think this is one of my longest reviews here, which makes me wonder if anyone's still reading. In the off chance there is, I'll reiterate that this is absolutely worth seeing. It has a few issues, but it is such a dramatic step up in quality I feel embarrassed even comparing it to the last few DCEU films. By all means, check it out this weekend.