BABY DRIVER (2017)
Someone please remind me to never again trust movie critics—especially when they are writing about summer films.
Professional reviewers face that interminable wait between the Oscar-bait of December and Memorial Day, when Hollywood restarts its engine and releases films it actually believes more than a handful of people want to watch. By June, critics are desperate to like something…anything; which brings us to “Baby Driver,” a pretentious, simple-minded attempt to make crime cool again.
Ansel Elgort, an actor-musician-celebrity known to the under-25 crowd, plays Baby, (hip name, right?) a spectacular driver who rarely takes his ear buds out even as he’s recklessly evading authorities after a bank robbery. Baby’s participation in these criminal endeavors is excused as he owes the crime boss (Kevin Spacey) money, forcing him into his getaway-driver role.
British writer-director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “The World’s End”) front-loads the sympathy factor for Baby—necessary since the youngster is helping facilitate robbery and murder—by making him the guardian of an elderly black man who is wheelchair-bound and deaf. Seriously. He probably also helps little old ladies across the street. This movie requires you to check expectations of seeing anything resembling real life at the theater door.
Just in case you felt the film was short on clichés, Baby falls in love on first sight with a blonde, naïve waitress (a bland Lily James). But his real love seems to be his tunes, an eclectic collection spanning the last 40 years of pop, which is both Baby’s and the movie’s soundtrack.
The main crew working for Spacey is as skeptical of Baby as I was. Jamie Foxx plays the hot-tempered Bats, who trusts no one, especially the oddball Baby, while Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his much younger girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) are poor imitations of druggies fueling their habit. All are cold-blooded killers who take out police, civilians and each other without remorse (including a gun-runner played deliciously by 1970s legend, songwriter Paul Williams!).
But as the bullets fly, Baby just keeps groovin’ to his tunes, blocking out reality for himself and the audience.
GET OUT (2017)
An inventive cocktail of racial stereotypes and gory horror has turned this goofy, over-the-top African-American nightmare into the most talked-about movie of 2017.
Writer-director Jordan Peele leaves the message of the story ambivalent, easier for viewers to inject their own viewpoint onto the film. Is it a satire of black paranoia about white racism? A commentary on the real fears young black men face in America? An attack on black men who date white women? Or just a feature-length “SNL”-style skit parodying the inability of blacks and whites to relate?
The film begins as an updated version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” as Rose (Allison Williams) has invited Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), her new boyfriend, to her parents country home, insisting that they won’t care that he’s black.
From the start, it’s clear to Chris, and the audience, that the parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are trying way too hard to be accepting. Yet never, for a second, do they stop making reference to his race.
After even stranger encounters with the black nanny and a black handyman (coincidence? I think not….), Rose’s crazed brother and a very odd late night conversation with Rose’s mother, Chris knows he should get out. But, of course, he sticks around; it’s all just his imagination, his girlfriend convinces him.
The next day, the parents host their annual neighborhood gather, bringing dozens of wealthy white folks who all want to meet Chris. It’s not long before true motivations are exposed and the horror shifts from psychological to bloodletting.
Kaluuya and Williams aren’t very convincing as the newly in-love couple, both actors lacking the ability to command a scene. Saving the movie is comedian LilRel Howery playing Rod, Chris’ best friend, a TSA agent, who, through a series of phone calls, keeps warning his friend about various conspiracies about whites. It’s one of the funniest “best friend” performances I’ve seen in years; he turns almost every line into a laugh-out-loud moment.
Peele, previously a TV writer and actor, has impressed Hollywood with his directing debut, and the movie’s $200 million plus box office take. To me, he overplays his hand in the film’s second half, as the story dips into bad 1950s comedy-horror plotting and then resorts to the horror-film staple of turning a mild-mannered hero into a killing machine.
But “Get Out” has clearly hit a nerve with filmgoers simply by looking at race relations through an unconventional lens. And, unlike in real life, the good guys get to win.
THE BEGUILED (2017)
For over 40 years, the 1971 version of this Civil War tale of sexual politics has been regularly playing on television. Yet, writer-director Sofia Coppola, whose continuing career as a major filmmaker leaves me baffled, felt it deserved a new version, one that is more ambiguous, less fun and rather pointless.
I’m not fan of the Don Siegel-directed 1971 film, which is remembered only because it stars Clint Eastwood, but it fit into the American cinema’s attempt, from the late 1960s through the ‘70s, to explore long-suppressed sexuality and the deep-seated connection between sex and violence.
What Coppola had in mind with this remake is anyone’s guess—L.A. Times critic Justin Chang writes that she’s trying “to capture the tricky, elusive interplay of heterosexual longings in close quarters.” Well, right, but do we really need to repair back 150 years to enlighten audiences about sexual mores?
The story begins when a young girl, living at a Virginia girls’ school not far from the front lines of the war, finds an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) and brings him back to the home. Headmaster Martha (a chilly Nicole Kidman) decides to let him stay until he’s healed, rather than turn him over to Southern troops.
It doesn’t take long before he’s sweet talking all the girls, especially the needy Edwina (the always superb Kirsten Dunst), the school’s teacher; and flirty teen Alicia (Elle Fanning).
The central plot turn doesn’t offer the malevolence that was quite clear in Siegel version of Thomas Cullinan’s novel, making the characters’ motivations in the last act of this new version confusing, at times arbitrary.
I have no idea why Coppola earned the best directing award at the Cannes Film Festival for this; the production is poorly paced and indifferently acted (Farrell doesn’t seem to have a clue as to who his character is), while the conclusion is drained of any potential drama. Somehow, Coppola failed to improve upon an unexceptional 70s film.
THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943)
We all complain about contemporary Hollywood’s obsession with remakes, but when this adaptation of British novelist Margaret Kennedy’s 1928 book was released, it was already the third film version of the story.
Charles Boyer, one of the era’s top romantic figures, plays Lewis Dodd, an iconoclastic composer whose mentor (Montagu Love) has three daughters Lewis dotes on. But it’s the middle teen daughter, convincingly played by 26-year-old Joan Fontaine, who is seriously in love with the dashing, much older man.
The relationship becomes complex when he marries her cousin (Alexis Smith) after the girls, left homeless when the father dies, are taken in by a rich, if inconsiderate uncle (Charles Coburn).
You can guess most of the plot after Dodd marries the cousin and Fontaine’s Tessa tries to hide her continuing devotion to him. But Fontaine never is anything less than touching in her portrayal of the love-sick girl. Nothing is quite as heartbreaking as unrequited love and this is one of the best depictions of it from a female point of view.
The film is a first-rate Warner Bros. production, featuring superb acting by the entire cast, elegant directing by Edmund Goulding (“Grand Hotel,” “The Razor’s Edge”), a thoughtful screenplay by Kathryn Scola (“Baby Face,” “Female”) and a memorable score by legendary film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. There is something about a fabulously made studio film that more than compensates for story flaws or creaky ideals.
Fontaine, one of the most striking and naturalistic actress of her time, was in the midst of her most successful run. In 1940, she was the second Mrs. de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Rebecca,” then won the 1941 Oscar for her role opposite Cary Grant, again for Hitchcock, in “Suspicion.” The same year as “Constant Nymph,” she played the title role in “Jane Eyre.” Later in the decade, she starred in the romantic classic “Letter to an Unknown Woman.”
After the 1940s, the good roles dried up for Fontaine and she spent most of the second part of her career in television, better known as bitter rival to her sister Olivia de Havilland (who recently celebrated her 101st birthday), than for her own career. But at her best, in the right role, she was her sister’s equal, and that was especially true during the 1940s.
THE LOVERS (2017)
This film about a married couple hiding affairs is among the most half-baked, misguided and tin-eared attempts to examine middle age I’ve endured in a long time. About as authentic as a Pixar animation and acted with the kind of off-handed, stagy realism that seeps the energy and tension out of the story, the film can’t even be saved by the presence of Debra Winger.
In her first major role (well, I guess it’s major) since 1995’s “Forget Paris,” the 62-year-old actress, once proclaimed the best of her generation, plays Mary, whose longtime marriage to Michael has hit the rocks awhile ago. Michael, played by stage actor Tracy Letts is having an affair with an emotional dance instructor (Melora Walters) while Mary has taken up with a serious novelist (Aiden Gillen). That they both have sought out artistic types must mean something, but I don’t know what.
More depressing than this couple having lost interest in one another is that these ongoing affairs are not much more compelling. The script offers little to show that any of these relationships are either good or bad—neither Mary nor Michael exhibit enough personality to make you believe they were ever happy people or even would take the initiative to engage in an affair.
Writer-director Azazel Jacobs (“Terri”) has confused tedious realism with insight and truth; the film plays like (but wasn’t) an overly earnest theater piece poorly translated to the screen.
The big plot turn comes when the pair admit to the affairs and—who would have guessed—fall in love with one another. While love is not to be understood, neither are these characters; their silence speaks not volumes, but underwritten shallowness.
Letts, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his play “August: Osage County,” could have used some of that script’s over-heated emotions, while Winger seemed at times lost, as if she was reading the lines for the first time.
20TH CENTURY WOMEN (2016)
This film belongs to a very distinctive sub-set of coming-of-age pictures revolving around a dysfunctional family, such as “The Squid and the Whale,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Running with Scissors.”
Writer-director Mike Mills, who earlier tapped his life story in “Beginners,” about his 75-year-old father coming out of the closet, chronicles a childhood defined by Dorothea, his free-spirited, outspoken mother
The Mills stand-in, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is a 15-year-old adult who has little connection to contemporaries, pointedly shown when he tried to explain feminism to his teen mates.
Struggling to survive as a single mom, Dorothea (Annette Bening, who has this type of woman down pat) fills their run-down Santa Barbara house with like-minded types: an ex-hippie, jack of all trades drop-out (Billy Crudup) and a purple-haired punker (Greta Gerwig, of course). Along with neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning), closer to Jamie’s age, who sneaks into his room each night to share (platonically) his bed, they shape the person Jamie will become.
The problem with the film is that the characters are so aware of their “role” in the theme that I couldn’t buy them as real people. Everyone is working so hard to understand each other that I had to wonder what planet they arrived from. This certainly wasn’t the 1970s I remember.
Mills also strains to tell us everything about everyone, muddying the focus. But he does create (or re-create) a great character in the mother, and has found the perfect actress to inhabit her. Bening’s Dorothea can be suffocating one minute and totally distracted the next. She’s the center of everything in this film. (But I really didn’t need to see her attempting to understand punk—a creaky cliché.)
Fanning is equally impressive as Julie, casually capturing the fragile, pseudo-confidence that defines so many teens. I actually thought this was Dakota while I was watching the movie; both sisters have the potential to be exceptional actresses. Hopefully they get along better than de Havilland and Fontaine (see above).
While there is much to like about “20th Century Women,” the nonstop quirky events, fine on their own, become tiresome clichés as they pile up. Like most memoirists, Mills gives us more information than we need and lets his own sentiments clutter up a story that, in one way or another, everyone can relate to.
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016)
Maybe the only genre of movies that has improved in the past 15 years has been the high school film. For years, movies about teens were nothing more than exploitation pictures showing bad behavior and attractive youths.
Recently, movies such as “Easy A,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” have elevated the genre. Suddenly Hollywood screenwriters are interested in the reality of high school kids.
This film can be added to the list, mostly because of an exceptional performance by Hailee Steinfeld. Just seven years ago she broke out as a star playing the spunky Mattie in the Coen brothers remake of “True Grit.” Now 20, she plays Nadine, whose life takes a tailspin when her best (and only) friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) takes up with her seemingly perfect, popular older brother (Blake Jenner).
Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, in her directing debut, clearly remembers the hormone-fueled emotions and bad decisions of those teen years, portraying them without sentiment or need to exaggerate. The modern world has filled those last two years of high school with adult-level stress as teens must make critical choices that will affected the rest of their life, while facing hard-to-ignore temptations and the expectation to get everything right; quite a plateful for so-called children. It sometimes seems like a miracle that most teens emerge from it sane.
While the usual complications ensue in the movie—lunchtime drama, an unlikely boyfriend, pursuit of the cool guy, self realization—it doesn’t touch much on education. Nadine has little stress from academics and seems to have zero extra-curriculars; she seems headed for community college, even though she’s portrayed as more thoughtful and mature than her classmates.
The only aspect of the film I didn’t like was the clichéd role of her mother (a scenery-chewing Kyra Sedgwick), who is so self-indulgent that she’s barely aware of her children (the father died of a heart attack when the children were small).
For once, teachers aren’t portrayed as clueless bystanders. A perfectly cast Woody Harrelson plays Nadine’s favorite teacher, the sarcastic Mr. Bruner. She interrupts his lunches on a regular basis to rant about her tragic life (yes, I can relate) and he actually offers some good advice. Hey, we try.
CORRECTION—In one of my more embarrassing typos, I misspelled Warren Beatty’s name in my review of “Rules Don’t Apply.” I’m not sure if that quite matches his kerfuffle at the Oscars, but it is pretty close.