Baby Driver (2017)

In the few days since watching Edgar Wright’s latest at the theater, starting almost immediately after the screening, I’ve been suffering a very annoying case of swimmer’s ear. I can’t hear very well from the affected appendage, which is ringing slightly & swollen to the point of discomfort. I also can’t help but think that this sudden affliction is somehow cosmic retribution for not especially caring about Baby Driver, a film everyone seems to love without reservation, but only stirred apathy in me. In the film, a young twenty-something getaway driver with a heart of gold (named Baby, naturally) suffers from a near lifelong affliction of severe tinnitus. To ease the constant ringing in his ears, he choreographs his day around an endless stack of carefully-curated iPod classics, each loaded with just the right song selection to drown out the noise in his head & get him through his reluctant life in crime. Given how (mostly) great the soundtrack Baby selects for himself is (including tracks from artists as varied as T. Rex, Young MC, and The Damned) and the immediately apparent exuberance Wright shows behind the wheel, it’s downright sinful that I couldn’t manage to have fun watching this summertime exercise in action & style. Do not worry, though. My ear seems to have been struck down for the offense.

I don’t want to waste too much server space shitting on Baby Driver, since it’s bringing a lot of people a lot of joy. It’s easy to recognize what they see in it: stylized car chases, a killer soundtrack, playful action movie dialogue, etc. It’s just frustrating to me that a film with such an exciting premise (a babyfaced criminal timing his bank robbery getaways to pop music) ultimately feels so conventional & uninspired. It starts off sublimely committed to its central conceit too. Baby (played by real-life babyface Ansel Elgort) draws attention to himself by drumming on the steering wheel & lipsycing for his life to a blues rock diddy outside an in-progress robbery. His irreverence is immediately infectious. After establishing Baby’s skills behind the wheel in a show-off’s getaway, the movie establishes its main hook up front in the opening credits. While Baby strolls to a local coffee shop to cap off the heist, the music in his earbuds syncs up to the imagery onscreen, to the point where graffiti & street signs echo lyrics from the soundtrack. In this opening adrenaline rush, it’s easy to be seduced into thinking you’re watching a high octane, pop music-driven modernization of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a visually complex musical where every meticulously crafted detail in play is just an extension of the song developing in your ear. That’s why it’s such a letdown when the movie then reveals itself to be a much more conventional, instantly-familiar heist picture.

That’s not to say that a conventional heist picture can’t be a worthwhile mode of entertainment. Even while disappointing in ambition, Baby Driver features some exceptional performances from its actors. Lily James is absurdly sweet in her role as a diner waitress, feeling like a cartoolishly pure distillation of wholesome Americana. Jamie Foxx also steals attention whenever he’s allowed the opportunity in his role as the loose cannon criminal who can’t be trusted not to blow every heist apart into a bloodsoaked catastrophe, an unpredictable element of danger that helps the film’s “one last job” plot feel at least somewhat distinctive instead of mind-numbingly cliché. I’m a lot less hot on what Jon Hamm & Kevin Spacey are doing as Foxx’s criminal cohorts, which might get to the core of why I was underwhelmed by the movie as a whole. It’s not necessarily a fault with the performances, but more to do with Wright’s screenplay. Spacey & Hamm are tasked with delivering deliberately over-stylized, insincerely quippy dialogue that makes Baby Driver feel overall like a return to that deluge of mediocre mid-to-late 90s sardonic crime movies that followed in the wake of Pulp Fiction & Reservoir Dogs. Even back then those overly-jokey, scripted-to-death crime pictures were already exhaustingly redundant & flat. In a 2017 context the effect is even worse, feeling about as try-hard & unfunny as Deadpool.

It’s possible my mood was soured before Baby Driver even began, given Edgar Wright’s snooty pre-screening PSA about how going to the theater is an essential cinematic experience, as opposed to to the slackjawed dimwit slobs who watch Netflix on the couch (i.e. everyone alive). Mostly, though, I just felt let down that Wright abandoned his central Action Movie Cherbourg concept so quickly after following it to its furthest end in the opening credits. Whenever stray gunfire or gearshifts sync to the music in later scenes, it just feels like a distant echo of a better movie that could’ve been. Without its defining gimmick commanding every moment, Baby Driver feels alternately like post-Tarantino slick action runoff & a made-for-TV mockbuster version of the equally mythic, but infinitely more stylish Drive. I probably shouldn’t be saying these things aloud, though, just in case it’s risking hearing loss in my currently uninfected ear. I hope you, Wright, and the pop music gods in charge of my hearing will eventually forgive me for the transgression, lest I need to start shopping on eBay for some secondhand mp3 players.

-Brandon Ledet

The Legitimacy of Paranoia in Mikey and Nicky (1976) & Mickey One (1965)

One of the most immediately striking aspects of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky is the way the film’s in media res introduction completely disorients anyone trying to get a grip on its overall narrative. The film opens with a strung out criminal played by John Cassavetes bunkered down in a shit hole motel, deathly paranoid that someone is out to kill him. He brings in an old friend, played by Peter Falk, to help him escape this fate and to sober up enough to not die at his own hands from the side effects of nihilistic alcoholism. As time goes on in the film, the audience is gradually clued in to the fact that this fear of assassination is very much legitimate. Cassavetes’s anti-hero (emphasis on the “anti”) is indeed being hunted down by the mafia for a past offense, no matter how often his only friend in the world lies to his face by telling him everything’s going to be okay and that he’s just being paranoid. I got the feeling while watching this story unfold that I had recently seen a similar scenario play out in another ramshackle organized crime picture from the New Hollywood era, its paranoia being especially reminiscent of the early scenes in Cassavetes’s motel hideout.

Arthur Penn’s forgotten surrealist crime thriller gem Mickey One preceeds his New Hollywood kickstarter Bonnie and Clyde by a couple of years, but also stars Warren Beatty and attempts to marry French New Wave sensibilities to a new flavor of American Cinema just like that bonafide classic. In the film, Beatty plays a stand-up comedian who finds himself at odds with the organized crime syndicates who run the nightclubs that employ him as an entertainer. Convinced that he’s in immediate danger of having his life ended and his body anonymously dumped in a junkyard, Mickey changes his identity and attempts to hide out doing menial labor until the spotlight calls his name so loudly that he cannot resist and again risks being assassinated to pursue his craft. Unlike in Mikey and Nicky, however, this paranoia is never explicitly justified in the film by outright threats from the mob. We’re never even sure if Mickey is being targeted by the mob, let alone why. It could very well be all in his head, as it’s only represented onscreen through a few side glances from menacing strangers, a beating in a dark alley way, and the intense scrutiny of stage lights during an existentially terrifying audition sequence. It’s all very abstract in comparison to the real world that represented in May’s film, despite where that one starts.

A significant difference between the depiction of paranoia in Mikey and Nicky & Mickey One might be tied to their positions within the New Hollywood movement. Mickey One was a precursor to New Hollywood sensibilities, still holding on tight to the art film abstraction that guided the French New Wave films that inspired the movement’s young auteurs. Mikey and Nicky arrived a decade later, joining the New Hollywood fray long after crime films like The French Connection and Mean Streets had already mapped out what an artful organized crime picture would look like in that era. What’s interesting to me (along with the odd similarity in the films’ titles) is the way those two sentiments overlap at the beginning of Mikey and Nicky. We begin the film not fully convinced that there’s any organized threat of assassination at all, as if we’re just listening to Cassavetes’s fears like the ravings of a mad man. That intangible threat of baseless paranoia and question of legitimacy carries throughout Mickey One, which easily matches Mikey and Nicky in drunken, ramshackle energy, but feels much more adrift & untethered to the real world. Even though I heartily believe Mikey and Nicky is the better film for that sense of grounded, real world consequences. I greatly respect the way Mickey One was able to sustain that feverish paranoia for the length of an entire picture. I suspect the two titles would make for an exciting double feature if paired together, but be prepared to spend most of the evening checking over your shoulder or else you might get whacked.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its closest Scorsese comparison point, Mean Streets (1973).

-Brandon Ledet

Low Level Crime and New York City Grime in Mean Streets (1973) & Mikey and Nicky (1976)

In our initial conversation about May’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Elaine May mafia pic Mikey and Nicky, Alli wrote about how the modern organized crime picture as a genre typically is associated with large ensemble casts, gigantic budgets, and sweeping themes about the Italian immigrant experience in modern America. That does ring especially true if you think of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, one of my all-time favorite films, as typifiers of the genre, as you likely should. Mikey and Nicky has much smaller concerns than either of those grand, ambitious works. Instead of attempting to capture the entirety of the mafia’s rise and fall in America, from poverty to opulence to back again, May’s film focuses on the small players who are but individual pixels in that much larger picture. The titular characters of her film, played by John Cassavetes & Peter Falk, are low level nobodies, merely necessary annoyances to their mob bosses, who treat them with open contempt. Staged over the course of a single night, the film’s minor drama reaches its lowest point when the two characters, despite essentially being each other’s only friends in the world, fight over a broken wrist watch in the dimly lit, visibly disgusting streets of pre-Giuliani NYC. There’s nothing grand or glamorous about the organized crime players in May’s film. They’re the lowlifes who’re left to fight over their mob bosses’ crumbs. That sentiment wasn’t entirely absent from Scorsese’s mafia pictures, however, even if his work in Goodfellas later represented Mikey and Nicky‘s aesthetic opposite. Three years before May’s film made it out of editing room post-production Hell, Scorsese had delivered a spiritually similar gangster film, one with common themes about small players fighting over pittances and with a common New York City grime.

I often dismiss Mean Streets as a kind of trial run for what Scorsese would later achieve in Goodfellas, but there’s a distinctly punk, lowkey charm to the film that makes it a rewarding watch in its own right. Harvey Keitel stars as a low level numbers runner who struggles with then-risque topics like interracial romantic desire & atheistic religious doubt. What really creates conflict for him as a low level mafia type, however, is the idiotic proto-punk antics of a life long friend, played by Robert De Niro. Living fast & loud, De Niro’s Falstaffian foil leaves a trail of financial debts & bruised egos wherever he goes, a mess Keitel’s troubled anti-hero often finds himself having to clean up. The dynamic of Mikey and Nicky is more or less the same, with its titular, brotherly lowlife criminals finding themselves at odds because one of them brings hateful scrutiny through his bratty, bridge-burning hedonism. With minuscule budgets & then-unproven directors, both films never had much of a chance to touch the more grandiose mafia stories of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The keep their scopes as small as possible, building tension in the betrayals and petty disagreements between their individual sets of low level criminal fiends. There’s something inherently tragic & pathetic about watching these crime world nobodies butt heads over minuscule debts & mafia etiquette while the higher-ups profit off their violence offscreen. By keeping their stories small & highly specific, both films do a great job in their own way of exposing a larger truth about the world of organized crime, if only by inference. Mikey and Nicky keeps things especially focused & streamlined, playing almost like a two-man stage play for long stretches, but Mean Streets is similarly dedicated to profiling the minor tragedies of low level criminals.

Besides their shared indulgence in minor crime world tragedy, Mean Streets & Mikey and Nicky are also both great snapshots of New York City grime. Scorsese’s reputation as a master of capturing 70s NYC in all of its sleazy glory might be more closely associated with Taxi Driver, which is a film more or less about the subject, but Mean Streets feels almost more authentic for using 70s NYC as a backdrop & a playground instead or a focal point. Keitel & De Niro’s crime-ridden tour of the Old New York is a great atmospheric measurement of the underbelly sleaze and working class angst that would soon lead to the city’s punk rock boom in just a few trips around the Sun. Mikey and Nicky feels even more authentic in its grimy New York City tourism, since it pulls an all-nighter, tearing through NYC street lights past an endless parade of barroom cretins, urban graveyards, and seedy late night cinemas. The New York City portrait captured by these two films a duo is of a city that’s long gone, cleaned up & policed into oblivion. Both films almost function as historical documents in this way, but more importantly, their shared New York City grime is an essential element in their bottom of the barrel crime world tragedies. Scorsese & May’s directorial styles were noticeably disparate in pulling off their minor New York City crime stories, with Mean Streets reaching for the pop music sleekness later perfected in Goodfellas & Mikey and Nicky luxuriating in the rough exploitation film looseness off handheld cameras & improvised dialogue. Together, though, they represent a small scale version of what we’re used to seeing in our mafia media, with more individualized stakes and a decisively punk rock attitude. I believe May made the better film in this pairing, but both entries are worthwhile for very similar reasons.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

White Girl (2016)

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Is White Girl a smartly pointed indictment of white privilege or an exploitative morality tale built around teenage hedonism and unwarranted sexual shaming in which a young woman is blamed for ruining a man’s life with her feminine wiles?  Does it help ease the film’s leering misogyny to know that it was written, directed, and produced by a woman? Are the characters & plot developed enough beyond 2D devices so that answering these questions could lead to anything more than eyerolling boredom? White Girl is such an obvious, clumsy button pusher that I’m mostly just annoyed that I allowed it to push my buttons. Somewhere out there a young college student is about to find their favorite movie in this cheap indie provocation, but I couldn’t get past the fact that it was participating in the very thing it was supposedly condemning. Every generation needs their version of Kids, I guess. The trick is catching yours when you’re still young enough to gasp instead of yawn.

Two white college students move into a predominately POC neighborhood and make fast friends & lovers out of the young, small fry drug dealers who work the corner outside of their apartment. Coming from a world of unpaid internships, liberal arts colleges, and money-filled care packages from naïve parents, they’re ill prepared for the real-life consequences of their actions and treat the lives of the men they fuck like playgrounds, a silly summertime indulgence. Luring their newfound cohorts outside their comfort zones, the girls push them into the dangerous territory of moving large quantities of product in wealthier, whiter circles. They also attract an obnoxious amount of attention to themselves & urge their beaus to start dipping into their own product (mostly cocaine, or, in the movie’s vernacular, “white girl”) instead of sticking to their normal routine of blunts & bong rips. This, of course, leads to a world of legal troubles, addiction, and clashes with bigger fish dealers in much bigger ponds. The film believes the tragedy it inevitably generates is a revelation of the way the white & wealthy are treated differently in a heartless system that targets POC. Mostly it just delivers the exact clichés you’d expect from miles away, revealing nothing that wasn’t already obvious from the start.

The main problem with White Girl is that it gleefully participates in the very evils it intends to expose. The film takes aim at a world of men who have a predatory sexual eye for young women’s bodies, but it leers slack jawed at them in the very same way. It wants to humanize the disenfranchised kid on the corner, but does so by making them the most blatant & ham-fisted dealer with a heart of gold cliché imaginable. It strives so hard to call out wealthy white woman privilege that it slips backwards into an old-fashioned mode of misogyny where women are to blame for men’s downfalls because they’re too sexually desirable to resist. Worse yet, the film often plays directly into the fears of casually racist parents when they send their darling baby girls into the big bad city for college. What if they move into a “sketchy” neighborhood, fall into casual sex & hard drugs routines with older men, and expose their naked bodies in public for easy popularity? Well, I never. White Girl wants to indulge in the sex & drugs & rock n’ roll lifestyle for easy hedonism, condemn the audience for leering along with it, make a point about white women using POC neighborhoods as consequence-free playgrounds, and then use POC narratives as consequence-free playgrounds. In so many ways the film participates in the very same entitlement it aims to indict.

I don’t mean to sound entirely negative here just because I personally had such an adverse reaction to the film’s casual provocations. I’d usually put in an effort to seek out some redeeming value in the film’s visual craft or occasionally effective performances, but the thematic fumbling left me with such a bitter taste that I don’t have the energy. I don’t believe White Girl is a despicable work worthy of any think piece outrage or moral protest. Its intentions in pointing out systemic racism & the harmful naïveté of unchecked privilege seems to be in the right place. It just chose an oddly compromised tone & outsider POV to tell its story, to the point where it tied its own shoelaces together on a screenplay level before it hit the ground stumbling. The film occasionally finds some interesting ideas in its clumsy button pushing, but doesn’t stand strong or confident enough to support its own convictions. If you’re going to get on a soapbox for a Big Message tirade, you should probably get your story straight before your rant begins. Self-contradiction makes for weak politics, especially if you’re using those politics to get away with indulging in a garish good time moments before getting serious.

-Brandon Ledet