Baby Driver Puts the Pedal to the Metal and Forgets About the Cruise Control

Edgar Wright’s new vehicle is by all accounts slick, but might have a little too much going on under the hood.

Making a mixtape is a labour of love, or so I assume –– I don’t think anyone’s made one since the creation of the iPod, but that means we’ve made playlists instead. We create one for every occasion: the gym, work, house parties etc. and it’s still just as meticulous a process. Ensuring one song flows to the next, creating a connective tissue running through, much like the artists themselves do when making an album.

Behind Baby Driver is Edgar Wright, a writer-director whose rightfully seen as an artist, one with a particular sound –– his voice, distinct and recogniseable after the success of The Cornetto Trilogy and his other work. In Baby Driver, Wright has attempted to make more than just a mere playlist of hits to belt out, instead swinging for the fences and creating a concept album, the film’s DNA being the music itself.

If your primary complaint about La La Land involved a lack of music, then consider your problem solved as this is stuffed with tunes;  Baby’s (Ansel Engort) numerous iPods providing the film’s needle drops. By all means a musical, but one that takes existing tunes and arranges them to tell a story over the story giving way for songs, Wright rarely lets the music let up and it feels near constant as a result. The first act seems unrelenting in that way, but avoids Suicide Squad-level of tedium due to Wright avoiding the easy songs, springing for the deep cuts from a wide array of artists: Queen, Simon & Garfunkel, Run the Jewels and many more.

Just as important to this film as the score are the scores that the criminal cast are looking to attain from the variety of heists they pull off. While many sequences are choreographed to the music playing in Baby’s eardrums –– from an early long take where he glides through the streets of Atlanta on a coffee run to more simple flourishes like Doc (Kevin Spacey) splitting up the crew’s cut of the cash –– these crimes are more elaborate, the set-pieces of the film and most thrilling sequences.

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Other movies in the crime genre, like Heat, take us inside the location being robbed, but Wright sticks with Baby and the getaway car. Sequences like that early long take demonstrate Engort’s adeptness at moving less like Robert De Niro and more like Fred Astaire and that flow extends to when Baby’s behind the wheel. The cars he drives weave through Atlanta, and its commuters, with his foot on gas, there’s no time to slow down as he looks to evade the cops. John Wick: Chapter 2 might engage in car-fu, treating the vehicles as other fighters, but here stunt coordinator and driver Jeremy Fry, who worked on both Wick chapters, moves from martial arts to music in order to deliver spectacle that’s just as graceful as the bullet ballet.

Baby’s cut from the same cloth as Ryan Gosling in Drive, a stoic character that’s content to cut the chatter. This changes when he meets a waitress, Debora (Lily James), their interactions light-hearted as the pair dance around the other verbally. The blossoming relationship provides the emotional through-line of the piece, but Wright incorporates some prior tragedy, the layers of which are gradually pulled back before being revealed in full. With a concept like this –– a getaway driver suffers from tinnitus and listens to music to drown it out –– it’s somewhat necessary to explain that, especially when aiming for a degree of realism like Wright is.

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As such, it engages with ideas from other crime movies, most notably Walter Hill’s The Driver, but includes more general ideas like a shipment of weapons and a sense of uneasiness when it comes to who the characters can trust. The film doesn’t slow down, running just shy of two hours and so feels filled to the brim with ideas. Wright layers these in a way you’d expect. While Mad Max: Fury Road went for a simpler narrative (in basic terms –– Point A to B and back) which allowed for maximum insanity, Baby Driver proceeds in a more traditional fashion, building through cause and effect, as that central crime narrative finds itself entwined with Baby and Debora’s relationship, among others. On the first watch, it doesn’t seem as well structured as the Cornetto trilogy, in terms of early foreshadowing, but there’s a chance that a more silent protagonist allowed Wright to leave the set-up of various elements unsaid, and this will become more apparent when re-watched.

Baby serves as the film’s protagonist, doing what he does for Doc to ensure everything goes off without a hitch or casualty, but he’s part of a cast of criminals run by Doc and made up of Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González), Bats (Jamie Foxx) and other bit players. Wright plays with the tension derived from this crew without making too knotted of a web –– Buddy and Darling are a couple –– partly due to how fast the film moves. It’s nowhere close to the near-three hour run-time of Heat, more in line with modern-day action movies and shorter than most superhero fare, there’s no real wiggle room to really delve into the rest of the crew’s interior lives.

Even with small glimpses, they shine. Foxx plays a wildcard and relishes the opportunity to go further over the top than the rest of the cast, González avoids the over the top quality other actresses may have gone for with this Bonnie (of & Clyde) character, commanding a mutual respect from everyone else, not least Hamm who with Spacey play the straight men in this enterprise, although Hamm’s walks a more precarious line, with that stern seemingly papering over rage. James plays the purest part, a respite from a far murkier picture that I think most are expecting, her chemistry with Engort allowing for a lighter mood –– one that might cause you to grin, but not necessarily laugh out loud. It should be said at this point that everyone here is phenomenal when it comes to how they use the space, hitting the musical beats with ease, a fact highlighted by how rarely Wright has to cut in closer from a wider shot to mask a mistake.

baby-driver-image-3His visual style remains, evident with the little things, like button presses and there’s some wider visual flourishes  –– one transition involves moving from a close up of Baby in shades to his car roaming the streets which Wright does with a gentle push in –– coming from another collaboration with cinematographer Bill Pope. Wright is clearly in control of the look of his film, while it may not utilise center framing like Mad Max: Fury Road, the action rarely gets muddled, even as the cuts get more frequent, down to the guiding hand of the soundtrack. Sound editing is just as key to Baby Driver and there’s at no point does someone seem to be a beat behind, making this a very rewarding experience if you know the songs.

While it’ll certainly play well with a crowd, Wright’s also looking to provide a unique, singular experience. A thin whine runs through scenes, because of Baby’s tinnitus, which shows how Wright is looking to focalise this movie through Baby’s head, putting the audience in there without relying purely of POV shots. For the most part, Baby spends the film with both earbuds in and the music booms. When inside a building, it’s by no means as overwhelming and gets even fainter when an earbud is removed. As a result of this near-constant soundtrack, not to mention the dialogue and other aural aspects, the sound mixing has a lot to contend with. In the moments where no-one’s barreling through the streets over the speed limit, the balance sounds good, but when Baby’s foot’s on the floor, there are moments where it feels like too much, as if you’ve found yourself right in front of a band performing live, but without earplugs.

ansel-elgort-in-baby-driverBlockbusters have a tendency to slip up in the third act, but that’s not strictly the case here. Instead it feels like it could have afforded to go a little further in its climax, but I’m willing to bet they couldn’t afford to from a financial perspective. Wright remembers the relationships built up over the course of the film lending it the necessary emotional weight, which demonstrates the strength of this film’s second act, its peak which goes far enough in developing those relationships. There’s one decision I’m not completely on-board with, but upon reflection is likely to be less of conflicting with prior actions and more because of the relative brevity of the film making it seem sudden.

That brevity results in a tightness in the script that makes it hard to simply point at Heat‘s runtime and ask for it to be closer to that. The film is meticulously crafted around a very precise soundtrack and timing that doesn’t allow for an additional scene to just be inserted midway through the run-time and alleviate all concerns, especially when it can be argued the ending has to string together more scenes than it should in order to provide a satisfying point to leave off.

Despite these final act issues, there isn’t a point where I didn’t enjoy myself and that may be the real strength of the film. For a while now, I’ve found myself liking blockbusters and tent-poles less than people I know and the initial consensus that forms online. Wright’s sheer devotion to the concept, never backing off from the initial idea that makes the film feel gutsy in a way that’s hard not to admire. Even the beat that didn’t gel with me is one I enjoyed seeing play out because instances like that make it clear this film has a far more complicated morality to it than expected and instances like that allow for debate.

It’s this kind of ambitious filmmaking that doesn’t just aim to shoot straight down the middle and win over everyone with the lowest amount of effort, instead going for something vastly different, where the passion and craft are clear. This results in likability and enjoyability being ideas which aren’t directly proportional –– it’s possible to like it without loving it, while still loving the time you spent with it. Wright has made a mixtape, a concept album, one which I admittedly didn’t love every track on it, but is one that I want to listen to again, now knowing the sound and feel to expect, looking to see how it all links together.

The Elegant Simplicity of Wonder Woman

DC’s latest works not only because it’s fine with being a superhero film, but because it is unashamedly so.

The most striking distinction, the one that separates Wonder Woman from the rest of the DC Extended Universe, is unusually that despite the film’s title, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is not referred to by that title within the film. Lest we forger that prior to their 2017 summer tent-pole, this was a universe that saw both Batman and Superman undergo periods of uncertainty, with the weight of the world thrown at them, in order to question if they ‘be worthy’ enough to protect their cities on opposite sides of the bay.

Not only that, but just ten months ago, this universe revealed itself to be one where the alleged supervillains (and believe me, we were told they were bad guys many times) appear to have been more willing to save a city, one that none of them come from, from an unquestionable evil. Wonder Woman does not trade on the moral queries of the previous entries or this franchise, or at least it doesn’t when it comes to its protagonist. Instead, Diana is Wonder Woman and this is not up for debate.

This simplicity can be seen in individual story beats, like when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) steals the notebook of Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). He simply sees it and goes for it. As a whole, the movie trades on this kind of simplicity when it comes to plot –– It does not try to intertwine four/five plot-lines like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, nor does it appear to being going where the wind and mood takes it a la Suicide SquadHowever, I don’t want to imply that this film is basic by any means.

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It’s smart, not in a Whedon-kind of way where the words ‘mewling quim’ end up in the finished product, but in regards to gender roles and the subversion of those within a blockbuster. This should be clear from the fact that Steve Trevor, despite being the romantic interest, is granted a great deal more to do than his respective female counterparts, but it applies to other scenes. Written by Allan Heinberg, there are points, such as when Diana walks in on Steve exiting the bath or later when they depart for London and discuss sleeping, where you might anticipate where these scenes will go, based on similar versions across many other pieces of media. This is primarily due to the dialogue, leaning on low-hanging fruit for these scenarios which can be played as cutesy-awkward, but under the lens of Patty Jenkins, an air of earnestness comes across.

Andrew Sarris considered this to be ‘Interior Meaning’, or the conflict between the text the director works from, and the text that they create. As a result, the joke isn’t on Diana. It might be played as humorous, but not for laughs directed at her because Jenkins understands there’s difference between being a fish-out-of-water and naivety writ large. A similar notion applies to Sammy, Charlie and Chief, played by Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock respectively. They might be stereotypes, a symptom of the script adopting a brisker pace upon arriving in Man’s World, but the qualities that come with these rough character outlines aren’t why they’re funny.

This notion of ‘interior meaning’ was demonstrated last year in Batman v. Superman, when Gadot ad-libbed her smile during the Doomsday fight, before she rejoined the brawl. With the focus now on year, she shines even more brightly than she did there. Present in the actresses that portray a younger Diana, Gadot demonstrates a determination in all of her actions and decisions throughout the film, and as a fish-out-of-water, she plays confusion without an air of vapidity –– the moment in which she becomes enamoured by a baby sees her tap into the same compassion and care for life that takes across No Man’s Land in the second act, the film’s most inspiring and flowing sequence.

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With Chris Pine, the pair demonstrate a chemistry that runs as an undercurrent in most if not all of their scenes even when it is not the focus and without either of them needing to say anything about it. Jenkins’ has a clear talent for non-verbal moments like this, the reason the wonders of the first act shine despite the heavy exposition about the mythology of the Amazons and gods. When dealing with scenes that are explicitly about the duo’s relationship, Jenkins focus on the pair and avoids cutting away to show reactions of others. This is about what they have together and that unity makes them best comic book pairing since Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter, a comparison that would be made regardless, but is ultimately welcome.

If anything, this goes to show that a lot of the film’s problems exist on a script level. in fact the issues present in the film –– exposition, underwritten supporting cast, a third act that forgets some themes previously considered, bad CGI –– are ones present in most superhero films (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War and Suicide Squad to offer just one possible assortment to fit this particular bill). It’s to the credit of Jenkins that the first two acts, the second most of all, are so strong, that these issues don’t weigh the film down further. In this lead-up to Wonder Woman‘s release, there was a worry that it would seem to similar to Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, but instead it feels fresh, in the way that Deadpool captured the zeitgeist and that’s a matter of new perspective.

Of course a disconnect from the wider DCEU helps with that. In fact, we don’t receive a definitive answer as to why Diana left Man’s World and the film would be better served without a framing sequence possibly reminding reviews of that. As with those moments mentioned previously with regards to ‘Interior Meaning’, this sense of hopefulness hasn’t been seen in this universe before (even if select viewers found it in Man of Steel) and the sheer desire to do good is frankly awe-inspiring, hopefully a point of refocusing for this franchise.

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With any luck this refocusing will shift away from fights set against green-screens involving all manner of flames and explosions. This is where the film becomes messiest, the bad CGI more noticeable now taking center stage, not helped by the editing. Despite this, Gadot remains a constant, continuing to show that she demonstrates this character in a way that even fans of her previous appearance likely couldn’t have anticipated. Through this it becomes clear that it’s never been Gadot’s acting that’s been flat, but instead that it seems this way when what’s around her, background and elements in the scene, are.

By and large, I think we’d like comic book movies to be something more, which is why so many latched onto Logan because it wasn’t a comic book movie played straight in its first half. At the same time, we have to also recognise that when one wants to be a comic book movie where good stops evil and then goes on to do that exceptionally well then that’s as equally deserving of praise.

Thankfully, Wonder Woman did not end up being a rehash of movies that Marvel made six years ago, but instead a refreshing and joyful experience because of how it subverts those, fighting against the traditions of the genre for as long as it can hold out, and at 140-minutes, it does so for near-two hours. It grants Steve an arc rather than relegating him to the role of romantic interest alone, a lesson which needs to be universally applied to the genre, blockbusters and film at large. When Jenkins is able to place the camera further back, a benefit of filming in real-world locations, and shoot action wide over the industry-standard proximity, the phenomenal blocking and choreography gets shown off, most prominently on Themyscira. It does not get lost in the weeds of what it means to be a hero, postulating if Diana can wield the lasso like they wondered if Steve could with the shield.

Instead, she simply does.