Baby Driver

Crank up the volume. “Baby Driver” is Edgar Wright’s masterpiece.

Baby Driver PosterYou know that feeling when you get behind the wheel and YOUR song comes on? That song belongs to you and no one else, and it makes you feel like you can do anything, like you can tear up the road, and like you’ve never felt an emotion this strongly before. As you tap on the steering wheel and sing along to the lyrics, someone on the outside looking in might think you look pretty stupid. And you know what? You do, and you kind of know it. What crazy song is that you’re listening to anyways?

Edgar Wright knows that feeling. “Baby Driver” is that feeling. You could be listening to some ‘50s soul song that would be humiliating if anyone knew what you were jamming. Your name could be something silly like “Ansel Elgort,” and you could be wearing a cheap pair of drug store sunglasses as you strut down the road awkwardly avoiding foot and street traffic. But you are in that perfect moment. No one looks cooler. You’ve never felt more confident, inspired or uplifted. This feels awesome.

“Baby Driver” is in love with itself, with its style, its soundtrack and its energy. But Wright gets that to some degree this is just a little lame. If it was trying to be cool he would’ve filled it with Top 40 bangers and jukebox favorites. Instead he picked the deep cuts you dance to when no one is watching. “Baby Driver” is a heist and action movie with the volume turned up to 11, but Wright has selected a soundtrack so in tune with the movie he’s always wanted to make that it feels like a deeply personal statement. Continue reading “Baby Driver”

Rapid Response: Ali

Ali_movie_posterI learned a lot about Muhammad Ali in the wake of his death a few weeks back. His fighting record was stellar, and there are so many wonderful photos of Ali with other geniuses who all saw him as The Greatest, but he’s the most important sportsman of all time because he changed the game and changed the world.

I perhaps learned less so watching Michael Mann’s “Ali,” a frustratingly long and meandering biopic with only some strong performances and fight cinematography to back it up.

Most biopics of this pedigree would feel the need to start in Ali’s childhood and work its way up through his late in life Parkinson’s. Mann resists that urge and focuses strictly on his time as a fighter, both in the ring and as a warrior for civil rights, his religion and the war. And yet you could make a movie that dialed closely on any one of these moments. If Malcolm X can get his own film then so can his relationship with Ali. You could make an entire Frost v. Nixon style movie based solely around Ali’s interviews with Howard Cosell. The discrepancy between their on-camera squabbles and off-camera chemistry could make a great comedy.

But by the time “Ali” arrives in Africa for the fight with George Foreman, not to mention the late-to-the-party introduction of yet another one of his wives, the compelling conflict and intricate drama of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement feels so far in the rearview mirror. We know the outcome of the fight, and the original tension the movie spent the first hour plus establishing has vanished.

So much of “Ali” hangs on Will Smith’s charisma in the role. It’s all in the mannerisms, the footwork, the bobbing and weaving, the physicality of his performance. When he’s being interviewed you can see his dramatic shift in posture, with his legs spread wide and a new cadence and rhythm to his voice. In the more dramatic scenes its his ability to get lost in a deep stare under heavy eyebrows and a gigantic forehead. Smith just fits the part better than anyone else could, and it’s arguably his best performance.

“Ali” wouldn’t be the first biopic to have a stellar lead performance and little else going for it. I said as much about “Chaplin” just this past week. But it’s amazing how in the film’s first hour, it genuinely floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, streamlining Ali’s life moments, his energy and his legacy all around those pivotal fights. It’s just by the end it’s moving so slowly it hardly resembles a champion.

Revisited: Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western still rubs somewhat the wrong way watching it two years later.

This review is a quick smattering of thoughts that was first shared in my Letterboxd review

There’s no questioning Tarantino’s mastery and control behind the camera. Rewatching Django Unchained, the film bursts to life instantly with a just about perfectly gritty and homage of a title sequence and grandly sweeping title song. The film’s opening scene inside a completely dark forest almost looks patently on a set, but Tarantino is doing that intentionally and makes the bleakness and distinct lighting of the scene beautiful. You watch it and its hard to imagine that this will be anything but another of Tarantino’s masterpieces.

I had felt lukewarm about the film on Christmas Day 2012. My somewhat embarrassing review questioned if it was entirely complete as the film was bold, but messy and disjointed, full of set pieces that existed only on their own terms and a revenge plot that felt secondary whenever Tarantino trotted out the flourishes, bloodshed and rap tracks.

And in the first hour of “Django,” those feelings had completely vanished, only to return once Leonardo Dicaprio’s utterly chilling and compelling character showed up. That’s because the first hour is a straight Western, and Tarantino nails it. He could’ve easily drawn out the vigilante hunt for the Brittle brothers to Leone length and made a damn fine film, but he had different ambitions. Continue reading “Revisited: Django Unchained”

Django Unchained

If “Inglourious Basterds” was really a Spaghetti Western in a World War II setting, then “Django Unchained” is really a Blaxploitation film in Spaghetti Western clothing. This could be frustrating in its own way, but it may be that “Django’s” intentional identity crisis is what makes it seem jumbled, messy, overlong and almost incomplete.

The ironic part is that this is true of every Quentin Tarantino film. He’s crafted an entire genre all his own in which the messy parts make the experience so damn fun. But Tarantino really was working up to the wire on “Django;” reshoots and last minute editing took place up until early December.

Yet to call “Django Unchained” incomplete makes it sound as though there’s something missing. That would be like having a German folk legend without a mountain; of course there’s one. What’s absent is the spark and allure that made “Inglourious Basterds” so infectious and invigorating.

Gone is the tingling suspense in the dialogue that suggested Hans Landa knew more than he was letting on or that ordering a glass of milk was a sign of an epic search years in the making.

Here in “Django,” the characters are more exciting and colorful than the story, and their dialogue is concerned with whether someone will snap at yet another instance of the N-word and ignite a “Wild Bunch” proportioned firefight. The details behind the motivations seem to be just a matter of circumstance.

Take The Brittle Brothers, a mysterious and vicious gang with a big bounty on their heads. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a man gifted with his guns but more so with his words, wants to capture them badly, but he knows neither their whereabouts nor what they look like. Django (Jamie Foxx) however, does. Schultz goes through the trouble of freeing Django from a pair of slave owners and enlists his help, and the two dismantle the trio of brothers in no time. The brothers’ threat and their reason for being matters little.

The real story then is Django’s quest to reunite with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). They discover through the uninteresting means of a logbook that she is the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the wealthy owner of the Candieland plantation. Candie is an avid lover of Mandingo fighting, in which black people brutally beat each other to death in front of adoring whites, and Django and Schultz’s plan is to impersonate wealthy buyers so that they can purchase Broomhilda out from under them.

Even Broomhilda is no one of consequence to anyone but Django. Broomhilda’s transaction could conceivably be handled civilly, but Schultz craves a good battle of wits, and Candie is a Southern Gentleman who just doesn’t want to be made a fool. Django is really just along for the ride.

That’s the problem with “Django Unchained;” in its current edited state, the plot too seems to be along for the ride. Tarantino squeezes juicy moments from the lot, such as Django’s garish blue outfit, some verbose wordplay by Waltz and a few gunfights scored to gangster rap, but they matter less than in the Westerns and Blaxploitation films they were inspired by.

Consider one of the film’s best scenes in which Candie places a skull of a black man on his dinner table in front of Schultz and Django. He eloquently preaches the pseudo-science of Phrenology to explain why black men are inferior to whites, wielding a hammer in a threat to bash some skulls both figuratively and literally. The moment is electric, but it’s a put on, isn’t it? It’s very convenient that Candie has a skull lying around, and he’s only doing it to be showy.

There’s also the moment where a posse of whites ride in brandishing torches and wearing pillow sheets to lynch Django. Just before their attack, one of several of the film’s spontaneous spectacles, he rewinds back to a hilarious routine in which everyone complains that they can’t see out of their sacks. Wouldn’t you say this scene almost intentionally interrupts the movie’s flow?

By the time Tarantino arrives at his exorbitantly bloody finale, he barrel rolls past it to remind you it’s not a Western but a Blaxploitation film, wedging in a torture scene, a director’s cameo and a new, less interesting villain. Something is definitely jumbled if the climax seems to have passed.

“Django Unchained” is like Candie’s belief in Phrenology. The science seems to all be there, and it’s captivating when you hear it, but there’s definitely something about it that feels wrong.

3 stars

Off the Red Carpet: Week of 11/7 – 11/14

We’re at the point where there’s going to be a big movie opening every week until the end of the year now, so get excited.

“Skyfall” has biggest Bond opening ever

“Skyfall” earned $86.7 million at the Box Office this weekend, sending it on its way to trounce even the inflation added record of the fourth Bond, “Thunderball.” It’s popular appeal as well as its just plain awesome quality has lead some to speculate the possibility of nominating Judi Dench, Javier Bardem and Roger Deakins for their respected Oscars, as well as a push for the movie itself for Best Picture. It’s a long shot, but I would be on board.

Best Animated Short shortlist revealed

Could we soon be saying, Oscar Winner Maggie Simpson? The shortlist for the Best Animated Short category was revealed last week, and it includes “The Simpsons” short “The Longest Daycare” and the lovey Disney short “Paperman.” The Pixar short film this year that screened before “Brave,” “La Luna,” was nominated and lost last year. But I can guarantee you now that the little underdog movie no one’s heard of and no one will see will almost definitely win this category. Here’s the full list: (via In Contention)

“Adam and Dog”



“The Eagleman Stag”

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

“Fresh Guacamole”

“Head over Heels”

“Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare'”



Christoph Waltz in Best Actor race

I said last week that for some reason people already want to count “Django Unchained” out of the race before anyone’s even seen it. Why no one would consider Christoph Waltz owning “Django” just like he did “Inglourious Basterds” is beyond me, but the difference this year is that he’s being pushed for the Lead Actor race now rather than supporting. Yes, it’s a crowded field, but he was just that good before, and I don’t see why he can’t be again. This also means that Leonardo DiCaprio and even Samuel L. Jackson are people to keep an eye on in the Supporting race. (via In Contention)

Image Credit: The Hollywood Reporter

The Hollywood Reporter Airs Annual Actor Roundtable

Each year The Hollywood Reporter puts together an extended interview roundtable with a collection of actors, usually Oscar hopefuls for that year. Last year they interviewed George Clooney, Viola Davis, Christopher Plummer, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, and this year they’ve interviewed Jamie Foxx, Matt Damon, Denzel Washington, Richard Gere, Alan Arkin and John Hawkes. All six are potential Oscar candidates for acting, three more likely than the others, but their discussion veered much more intellectual. They talked acting on stage, what they would do if they couldn’t act, family and whom they admired. It’s a stirring hour-long discussion between smart actors being very candid in a setting you won’t see anywhere else. (via The Hollywood Reporter)

Gurus ‘O Gold released

The Gurus ‘O Gold have been my go to barometer for Oscar predictions for the last few years. Collectively, they are probably better at anticipating the awards and forecasting changes than any one of them individually. This is their first time forecasting the major categories this year since Toronto. Things are bound to change as a few other movies set in and are seen by the public, but the universal consensus right now is unsurprisingly “Argo,” followed closely by TIFF winner “Silver Linings Playbook.” The surprise I see in the list is the inclusion of “Flight” in 10 spot and “Moonrise Kingdom” on the outs. 10 is probably a generous number for nominees anyway. Take a look at the full list if you’re like me and love charts and spreadsheets and stuff, and avoid it if you think it has the potential to suck all the fun out of the Oscars. (via Movie City News)

Will Best Picture match Screenplay?

A blogger at “Variety” observed that last year was a surprising anomaly in the trend for nominees for Best Picture and Best Original or Adapted Screenplay. The movie with the BP nod always gets the screenplay nod, with historically very few exceptions. Last year alone matched the last 10 years in terms of gaps between the two categories, and it’s worth noting that this year may go the same. “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Master,” “Amour,” “Django Unchained,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Sessions” are all questionable nominees for Best Picture, and that’s just listing the front runners in the screenplay races. (via Variety)

Ben Affleck to receive “Modern Master Award”

For a guy gunning for an Oscar for Best Director with a film set in the ‘70s, it’s got to feel good to win an award called the “Modern Master Award” at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Ben Affleck will receive the award on January 26, conveniently not long before the Oscar ceremony itself. (via The Race)

Week 5 Predictions Continue reading “Off the Red Carpet: Week of 11/7 – 11/14”