Vroom Vroom Land (Cause Cars?), or, Baby Driver

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CAR ATTACK

The Inception noise.

The Jaws theme.

The opening bars of L.L. Cool J’s “Deepest Bluest (Shark’s Fin)” as the screen fade’s to black on director Renny Harlin’s 1999 tour-de-force Deep Blue Sea.

Music was an integral part of film even before dialogue. Great music in film can accentuate swagger and heartbreak, punctuate dramatic revelations, and interact and elevate everything from a set to a performance. And yet, the nature of the medium of film and the conventions placed upon it limit just how much interaction the photography and the soundtrack of a film can have with one another.

Rocky doesn’t get to point out how badass his theme is. I assume. I don’t know. I haven’t seen Rocky. Get off my back.

McConaughey doesn’t plug his ears at the aggressive volume of Hans Zimmer’s pipe organ ordnance.

James Bond doesn’t bust out some sweet, sweet air guitar shreddage to John Barry’s classic riff.

If music were a vengeful old deity, bitter for the underappreciated magic it so thanklessly bestows on cinema, writer-director Edgar Wright’s latest film Baby Driver would be a long overdue offering, and it would appease its recipient mightily.

Baby, the titular driver, is a young man with the rest of his life ahead of him, as soon as he works off an old debt by serving as getaway driver to a criminal mastermind and his rotating potpourri of hired guns. Whether he’s buying coffee, busting out sweet donuts and kick-flips and whatever other neat things you do with a car, or hanging out at a diner, Baby is tuned in to his iPod nonstop, the soundtrack he provides his life also serving as the soundtrack to the film.

Baby Driver isn’t a musical, and it isn’t just an action film with a dope soundtrack. It’s a film in which the cinematography, performances and soundtrack seamlessly interlock, forming a sort of Mobius strip in which one informs the other informs the other ad infinitum. The characters in the film acknowledge the music being played even as the music being played acknowledges the actions of the characters. This isn’t an occurrence relegated to a quick gag or a single inspired sequence, this interaction is a constant throughout the entire film.

The interplay between mediums in Baby Driver isn’t done with a wink. The film isn’t breaking the fourth wall. Its setting up elaborately, spectacularly choreographed scenes in which everything at play interlinks organically.

But don’t get the wrong idea. That interplay is no gimmick. Baby Driver is a fun heist film that adeptly sways from thriller, to romance, to comedy, to action. Edgar Wright’s script by no means requires kickass tunes to be interesting and entertaining. Star Ansel Elgort and the rest of the film’s cast, particularly Jon Hamm, deliver great performances and the car chases and action will likely still impress with the film on mute.

Don’t get the wrong idea from Baby Driver.

Probably Darth Vader shouldn’t grab an imperial officer by the ear and point out how badass his theme music is.

Probably Ryan Gosling’s Driver shouldn’t acknowledge how dope his playlist is.

Probably all the booties in Fast and Furious shouldn’t be wagged about in real time to the movie’s soundtrack.

Probably.

But Baby Driver is exciting. It offers new ideas about the interaction between the various pieces at play in a film, and while I’m not chomping at the bit for a million imitators to try and make the next Baby Driver stylistically, philosophically the idea of reinterpreting the conventions of how a film comes together is a living, breathing horse that could definitely stand to take a few more whacks.

 

 

60/40, or, It Comes at Night

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Night? Night comes at night? Is this a trick question?

It Comes at Night is a film that reveals itself, to whatever small extent it does so, only in retrospect. Writer/director Trey Edward Schultz’s latest is an apocalyptic thriller, something along the lines of a bottle episode of The Walking Dead, if The Walking Dead were a stage play. It’s proven difficult to discuss the film without commenting on it in its entirety, which is not to say the movie hinges on some twist or trick, but that ultimately the entire plot of the film, from beginning to end, becomes infinitely more fascinating when viewed as a whole.

I will now summon what authorial tact I have in the pursuit of saying something worthwhile about the film without touching on any of the facets revealed across its running time that I now, looking back, have found so fascinating.

I’m gonna shoot for, like, a 60/40 split between vague and pretentious.

Lucky you.

Don’t let the marketing fool you. It Comes at Night it no horror film. It’s more of a slow burn thriller of the sort in which you can hear a fuse burning but you can’t see it, and thus have no real way of knowing how high or low the tension really is, only that it is there and that inevitably, as there is most certainly a fuse of indeterminate length burning away somewhere, that dynamite is going to go off.

It Comes at Night is haunted by a sense of inevitability and, as a result, often feels as though it is flirting with fatalism. There’s no long-term goal for our protagonists, nor any inclination that there is some sort of victory for them to aspire to. They live in a cabin in the woods, in a world torn down by disease. Their highest aspirations are simply not to get sick, which they will fight tooth and nail to avoid, despite being surrounded by clear indications that one form of doom or another is inevitable.

Throughout the film, slowly, steadily, variables are introduced that promise to spell some amount of doom. Not apocalyptic variables mind you. Small ones. Ones that you might not have noticed in a movie that wasn’t the size of a play. Variables that mean nothing upon introduction but so clearly promise to grow and multiply and eventually add up to something horrible.

It Comes at Night isn’t The Blair Witch Project or The Witch. It’s a nagging philosophical shot in the dark. In a world in which life is so nasty, brutish and short, where doom is inevitable, what drives these characters to do what they do? And is it any different, any more inexplicable, than what drives us in the audience to do what we do?

Okay, maybe 40/60.

A Superhero Movie, or, Wonder Woman

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\m/  [INSERT HEAVY METAL CELLO HERE]  \m/

Wonder Woman is undiluted superhero cinema the likes of which audiences have been without for, at least, the better part of a decade.

The latest film in DC Comics’ shared cinematic universe, the DCEU, blends the brand’s own penchant for powerful imagery and mythological scope with the Marvel films’ revolutionary approach of having protagonists that are actually charming rather than being miserable bastards.

But unlike most any entry in the filmography of either brand, director Patty Jenkins ‘ Wonder Woman tosses aside any substantial reliance on being a sequel or a prequel or a tie in. Similarly it doesn’t feel like a “take” on a superhero movie. Ant-Man is something of a superhero heist film. Iron Man 3 is a superhero buddy cop flick. The Dark Knight trilogy is a series of superhero films set in “the real world.”

Wonder Woman, more than any superhero movie since perhaps the first Iron Man (before the credits) feels like uncut superheroism. It’s primary concern is conveying the story of someone with extraordinary abilities using said abilities to better the world around them and the film serves as a testament to just how power that idea can be even without the bells and whistles of sub-genre tropes and crossovers and tie-ins. Bells and whistles I absolutely adore by the way, but bells and whistles that, as the likes of Age of Ultron can attest, can prove prohibitive.

Wonder Woman is a reminder of why popular culture went bonkers for superheroes in the first place, a reminder of the resonance these figures have in modern mythology, a reminder that at their best these logos and costumes can be mirrors of our morals and aspirations.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s much-lauded no man’s land sequence, in which Wonder Woman makes her way out of Allied trenches to take on attacking Central forces. It’s a set piece that’s, for me, proved more affecting and overwhelming than any other superhero action sequence in recent memory, not simply because of the deftly handled action, but because of its context.

The scene is preceded by Wonder Woman first encountering a man beating a horse that has gotten stuck in the mud along with the carriage it is towing. She is told to do nothing, to look at the bigger picture. Then she encounters the wounded. She encounters the sick. The hungry. Always she is told it cannot be helped. Finally, she hears of the occupied village across no man’s land, which she is also told to ignore in favor of a larger objective. And finally she puts her foot down.

Faced with the evils of the world, close to being overwhelmed by the profound horrors of it all, Wonder Woman stops, identifies a problem she can solve, and solves it.

Queue no man’s land and electric cello shredding.

Wonder Woman is a great film as a whole, but the no man’s land sequence in particular proved to be straight up transcendent. It will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever felt paralyzed by the wickedness of the world. When she rises out of the trenches, Wonder Woman rises above the fears that one person cannot block the tides of villainy, above the idea that there are too many problems in the world and therefore dealing with any of them is a waste of time.

It’s that idea, and it’s unencumbered communication to the audience that will undoubtedly mark Wonder Woman as a staple of superhero storytelling. It’s not a movie that’s exciting because it serves as a springboard for bigger, louder films in the future, or because it ties into another film and weaves into a larger whole. It’s not thrilling because it puts superheroes into some other genre, or because it subverts the superhero genre. Wonder Woman is fantastic because it digs down past franchises and cinematic universes and intellectual properties to offer something seemingly all too common and yet all too rare: a straight-up superhero movie.

The Who and The How and All That, or, Alien: Covenant

 

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Or jog. Or walk. Or whatever. It’s fine. There are literally no rules.

There is perhaps a certain utility to the frustration Alien: Covenant can instill, a sort of form fits function meta-narrative that exemplifies the film’s themes more effectively than the narrative itself.

This is director Ridley Scott’s third Alien film, the eighth film overall to feature H.R. Giger’s walking psychosexual nightmare and the direct follow-up to 2008’s Prometheus, a film the quality of which is still contested. It follows the voyage of 22nd century pioneers on the titular ship Covenant, who are on a mission to colonize a new world when they run into some trouble of the double-mouthed, phallic-headed variety.

But there’s also a pesky, malevolent articulated intelligence at play in Alien: Covenant that bisects the film and ultimately steals the show, for better or worse, from one of cinemas most iconic monsters as if two of Scott’s most revered film’s, Alien and Blade Runner, are battling for the soul of Covenant.

It’s no coincidence that the movie opens with said A.I. and it’s creator, as the driving force of the movie concerns the pursuit to comprehend one’s creator, and one’s response upon finding that comprehension either elusive or utterly disappointing.

Much like it’s predecessor Prometheus, Covenant finds this pursuit to be at once essential, futile and disappointing, which manifests in Michael Fassbender’s performance as the android in question, who is as fascinated by his progenitor, humanity, as he is disgusted by them.

If it can be said that a film or a director creates an audience, by conjuring one into theater seats via film, then we as that audience get to feel some facsimile of the conflicting fascination and disgust with out maker while watching Alien: Covenant.

One does not have to knit pick to point out the flaws.

The film boasts variation after variation of the xenomorph, the sums of highly questionable math. Some come from spores, some come from the traditional egg but then aren’t the traditional xenomorphs but then are. It sometimes feels like anything plus anything equals whatever.

There are enough antagonists in the film that on a first viewing it feels like you are slowly being taught that any given threat isn’t really that threatening, which I can only imagine leads a viewer to not feel threatened by anything on a second viewing. Couple that with what feels like dozens of protagonists, of which four are characters with highly questionable faculties for basic rationale and logic, and you have threats that aren’t quite threats not quite threatening interchangeable people whose purpose for existence seems to be to die in glorious R-rated fashion.

Disgusting.

And yet…

That examination of one’s drive to know where it came from and why is inherently relatable and Covenant can, at times, wax philosophical in grand fashion. There are scenes, designs and one-off lines that will stick with you, if not just straight up haunt you. And the ending of Alien: Covenant is, if nothing else, definitely something.

Thus, two weeks after seeing it, I feel myself reflecting upon Alien: Covenant like Fassbender’s android considering humanity, manipulating this damnable thing in my mind and catching stray glimpses of brilliance every time I am prepared to condemn it.

So there I was. An audience. Staring up at the screen, at the how and why of my very existence, thinking to myself, not without malevolence, “What am I supposed to do with all of this?”

I simply do not know.

Easy Ways and Hard Ways, or, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Decisions, decisions.

It’s startling how easy it can be to slide into lives that have been built for us without considering the lives we can build for ourselves. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is heavily concerned with the temptation to walk into a prescribed life and the struggle between that temptation and the admittedly daunting, perhaps impossible pursuit of building a life that is entirely your own.

Vol. 2 finds the Guardians more or less gelling as a unit, working odd jobs across the titular galaxy when, in the span of an hour or so, some provoked customers put them in their sights and a space weirdo with a beard (Snake Plissken) shows up claiming to be Star Lord/Peter Quill’s father. What follows is a hilarious and exciting look at the multitude of easier lives the Guardians could be living and the lives they are living, be it by choice or circumstance.

Amongst the plethora of revelations regarding Star-Lord’s past is a tailor-made life ready for Quill to slip into like a cozy leather glove. He’s given the option to leave the trials and tribulations of a space outlaw behind for a life that would, if nothing else, require substantially less effort. But the promise of an easier life is also the promise of a life far less his own.

Rocket, having essentially chosen to build a life for himself by standing around like a jackass with the rest of the Guardians in the first film, finds himself struggling with the intricacies that entails, primarily the consideration of others’ thoughts, feelings and opinions. Rocket finds his life to be anything but the stock option for a mutilated, sentient raccoon, but rising above his circumstances has proven to be a balancing act between fulfillment and responsibility, and Rocket is very much still mulling over which carries more weight to him, because at the end of the day being part of a family can be harder than being a loner.

Gamora and her sister Nebula were not only presented with a prescribed life, they were crammed into it, and they both carry the scars to prove it. Drax had built a life that, by all indications, was his own before it was destroyed. All three characters find themselves tasked with starting anew and determining not only how much energy and heart to put into a second go, but which direction to go in.

And then there’s Baby Groot (Dominic “XXX” Toretto). Not just hilarious, not just adorable, Baby Groot is essentially a blank canvas, taking queues on how to live it’s (?) life from these various entities all struggling to determine how they will live their own lives. Baby Groot stands on the precipice of the journey the rest of the characters are already travailing to varying degrees of success.

Most interesting, however, is the conflicted story of Yondu. In Vol. 2 we learn that Yondu’s gang, The Ravagers, are something of a redheaded stepchild to the larger, proper Ravager horde, but due to decisions in Yondu’s past he and his gang were excommunicated in disgrace. Yondu then becomes the epitome of living life your way, and he’s suffered for it, perhaps deservedly so. But the same choices that make Yondu’s life utterly his own are the ones that have made his life difficult. His is not a lot the audience is likely to find themselves yearning for. He’s denied himself the life he could have lived had he conformed with The Ravagers, and in turn he’s endured hardship, but he may have also reaped rewards far greater than he ever could have otherwise. Yondu, and Michael Rooker’s excellent performance, is at once this film’s emotional and intellectual center, a sort of living thesis statement: living life off the beaten path can be as punishing as it can be fulfilling.

With that in mind it’s no coincidence that antagonism takes the shape of The Sovereign in Vol. 2. They’re a species of fancy gold people who take pride in being genetically designed to fulfill specific sociological needs. Their lives are determined before they are even conceived. Theirs is an antagonism that exists in an echo chamber. It’s the evil of uniformity, and of justifying the righteousness of said uniformity with numbers or might.

If the evil here is conformity and complacency, then it is also no coincidence that the film is absolutely hilarious. What is humor but the upending of expectations? What is a quip but an off-color attack on the golden status quo? Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a tale in which the villainy of homogeny can only be thwarted by the heroism of being an utter smartass.

Guardians of the Galaxy gave us a cast of lovable misfits and outcasts. Vol. 2 explores why they are misfits and outcasts not just in their own societies but in their very souls. Ultimately, it suggests that maybe that decision to seek out a different life, to become a misfit in spite of the challenges living against the grain presents, is what makes these characters heroic.

Star Wars Rebels Season Four Preview, or, I Saw an Episode of Star Wars Rebels You Probably Haven’t Yet! Neat, Huh?

Last month I was able to make my wistful daydreams a reality and not only finally attend Star Wars Celebration, but also wake up at 4am to stand in line and finally sit down for a LucasFilm Animation panel in person. At the panel, for Star Wars Rebels, I was able to see a screening of an episode from the show’s upcoming fourth and final season, Heroes of Mandalore Part I. Below, some spoiler-free thoughts to tide you over until Rebels returns this fall.

Oh who am I kidding, I just wanted to brag about seeing the episode first.

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Did you have the wherewithal to con your way into a children’s pass to Star Wars Celebration? I bet you didn’t.

If Heroes of Mandalore Part I is any indication, Rebels’ fourth season may prove to be its most energetic yet. The episode is essentially two acts, each of with centered on an aerobic-heavy action sequence. The episode finds our heroes more confident and capable than ever as they take on an UNDISCLOSED of UNDISCLOSED at UNDISCLOSED to UNDISCLOSED UNDISCLOSED’S UNDISCLOSED.

My take away from this episode really was the action. Humor and drama are both present and deftly wielded, but more than any previous episode I can think of, Heroes of Mandalore felt relentless and almost out of breath. The second action sequence in particular felt akin to something between Indiana Jones and (a more grounded) Fast and Furious. There’s a lot of momentum in this episode, which is a promising sign given that the Rebels panel also brought with it tidings of the show’s ending with this coming season.

That aerobic momentum is what you want from a final season, a sense of barreling for the finish line like an insane person, limbs flailing, breath be damned. The episode left me with the impression that Rebels’ would have a lead boot on the pedal for its final season.

Also that part where UNDISCLOSED UNDISCLOSED SPOILERS SPOILERS HAHA I SAW AN EPISODE OF REBELS YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T SEEN YET UNDISCLOSED SPOILERS was something else!

Just a Movie Standing in Front of an Audience Asking Them to Think It’s Dope and Hilarious, or, Fate of the Furious 

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For your consideration.

Fate of the Furious is an exercise in the absence of subtext. Or at least intentional subtext.

You can watch F8 and try to look beyond Vin Diesel driving an immolated car in reverse so the flames make it go faster. You can search for meaning in The Rock curling a concrete bench while mean-mugging The Stath. You can stare at an empty page and try to will a thought-provoking blog post on the eighth Fast and Furious film into existence, but that way madness lies.

I could try my damnedest to gnaw meat off of a bare skeleton and wax poetic about F8’s exploration of the conflict between the technology of freedom (cars, Coronas) versus the technology of oppression (surveillance, automation, white dreads), about how Dominic Toretto and fam’s real battle is one for the autonomy of motion in a world that is increasingly capable of pinpointing the individual, but it wouldn’t ring true.

There are no political, philosophical or spiritual strings controlling the action and events of Fate of the Furious. There is only one agenda in this film: convince you that these people are so, so cool and that Tyrese Gibson is so, so funny.

Perhaps what NPR fails to grasp about Fate of the Furious is that it isn’t that Tyrese Gibson is so, so funny (he is) and that these people are so, so cool (I mean…) that drove (right? Because cars?) Fate of the Furious to the highest global opening weekend of all time, it’s that the pursuit of that cool and that humor is so genuine, so unencumbered by agenda.

Sometimes, The Rock hanging out of a jeep to kick a missile shot by the nuclear submarine that’s chasing him across a Russian ice shelf is just The Rock hanging out of a jeep to kick a missile shot by the nuclear submarine that’s chasing him across a Russian ice shelf.

Fate of the Furious was never going to be for everyone. It was always going to require us to watch with what can only be referred to as “Vin goggles.” This is a movie, and a franchise, that isn’t trying to trick, or wink at, or subvert. It’s a movie that pulls out all the stops, or at least $250 million worth of stops, to get you to say “boy those people are so, so cool and Tyrese Gibson is so, so funny.” And there’s something utterly delightful about someone spending $250 million dollars just to get you to think they are so, so cool and so, so funny.