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

Nine Lives (2016)




Mark August 2016 down as the exact moment 90s nostalgia reached peak ridiculousness, since we’re apparently now making movies about corrupt businessmen who learn life lessons by getting turned into talking animals again (in this case a cat). And I’m talking real movies with real theatrical releases, too, not just some straight-to-DVD trifle from Air Bud Entertainment. Said talking animal comeback film, Nine Lives, even features two (!!!) Academy Award-winning actors and hinges its lovable furball antics on topics as hefty as greed, adultery, the ethics of leaving a vegetative state loved one on longterm life support, and attempted suicide. The result is a violent clash of tones that, as evidenced by the surprisingly well-attended screening I just witnessed, will have both toddlers and gin & soda-clutching wastoid drunks (It me.) alike laughing for the entirety of its runtime, albeit for wildly different reasons.

The most impressive thing about Nine Lives to me is how it finds a way to satisfy both sides of the toddler-drunk divide in its audience. For instance, the movie opens with a montage of cat videos lifted from YouTube, a tip of the hat to the audience that says, “Hey, we all know why you’re here, you pathetic thing you.” If you regularly find yourself losing valuable time to internet wormholes of cat-themed home video, you’re likely to get a kick out of Nine Lives‘s simple pleasures: a cat drinking scotch, a cat falling over, a cat slow-dancing with his human daughter, a cat rushing to prevent his human son’s attempted suicide. You know, the little things. If that weren’t enough, and if you don’t mind me spoiling a climactic moment in a children’s talking cat movie, Nine Lives presents internet permakitten Lil Bub as if she were the biggest celebrity cameo get of all time (and she very well may be). The movie’s dedication to broad comedy is inherent to its DNA, so it already has younger kids on the hook, but it also finds ways to rope in a goofier older set who showed up to chuckle at some cat-themed schlock. It does so both in its reverence for internet cat irreverence and in its subversive tendency to tackle dark, chilling topics in an incongruously lighthearted way.

Nine Lives opens with a greedy businessman (Kevin Spacey, Oscar Winner #1) ignoring his wife’s texts & daughter’s birthdays in pursuit of constructing the largest tower in the Northern Hemisphere, a monument to his own grotesque ego. Through a texting-while-driving PSA machination, our business prick anti-hero finds his body trapped in a coma and his mind trapped in an ordinary house cat. This arrangement is orchestrated by a mysterious pet shop owner (Christopher Walken, Oscar Winner #2), who uses his magical, secretive powers as a “cat whisperer” to teach the absent father, now known as Mr. Fuzzypants, a thing or two about humility & familial love. Mr Fuzzypants’s wife & daughter are super bummed about the unexpected coma patient in the family for about the length of a cab ride home and then immediately shift focus to the wacky hijinks of their new furball pet, who meows up a storm in frustration. In between getting drunk, spying on his wife’s suspected infidelity, leeringly watching her undress, and trying to maintain control of his business, Mr. Fuzzypants walks the audience through an inner monologue journey of sarcastic quips until he finally realizes, “I should’ve been a better dad.” His daughter comes to the same realization, declaring “I wish Daddy was more like the cat,” and bonding with the fatherly feline over slow-dances to The Coasters’ “Three Cool Cats” & retaliatory attacks on snotty preteen social media bullies. It’s all very silly (until you reach the suicide crisis of the climax, a moment so shockingly out of place it’s worth mentioning thrice).

One of the weirder aspects of Nine Lives I haven’t touched on yet is the film’s visual palette. Overall, it has an uncannily unreal, cheap feeling to its slick, CG look, recalling the living cartoon artificiality of titles like Speed Racer, Spice World, and Cool as Ice. The overall look of its sarcastic cat protagonist, however, is actually fairly realistic. This obviously isn’t the state of the art technological epiphany of Jon Favreau’s recent Jungle Book adaptation, but the cat genuinely looks pretty great considering the film’s budget. What’s really weird is how the realistic feline navigates the shoddy Photoshop aesthetic of his environment, creating a  strange fantasy realm space in the drastic contrast. Nine Lives thankfully doesn’t pull any last second “It was all just a dream” revelations in its conclusion, but its entire story could have all been revealed as a coma-induced hallucination at the end and the visual style would’ve comfortably supported the twist.

The king of anthropomorphic animal schlock in 2015 was undoubtedly the Jack Russell terrier pro wrestling picture Russell Madness. Nine Lives is a clear winner for 2016 so far (though it could’ve easily been surpassed by The Witch or The Shallows were they nudged a little harder in that direction). There’s something absurdly anachronistic about Nine Lives‘s very existence that makes it a fascinating watch as a modern theatrical release. Beyond its Jack Frost-type plot structure & cheap CG production design, Nine Lives manages to feel out of step with time in small details like its multiple George W. Bush & mean ex-wife jokes and its Gremlins-esque magical pet shop. And all this 90s-00s nostalgia haze serves to do is mask a truly disturbing tonal clash between toddler-friendly physical humor & pitch black subject matter, sometimes fused together, like in gag where the mysterious cat whisperer threatens to have Mr. Fuzzypants fixed.

I can’t promise you’ll get as hearty of a laugh out of lines like [trying to operate a computer tablet] “Ironically, I could use a mouse right now” & “Is this cat my dad?!” as I did, but I do think Nine Lives is recommendable for its horrific train wreck appeal in its inner conflict of tone vs. subject matter. When I first bought my ticket I was shocked that it was stamped with the incredibly high rating of PG. By the end credits I was shocked that it was marketed for kids at all. But there we all were, laughing in the theater together, children & tipsy adults alike, each clutching our respective juice boxes & hard liquor containers, finding a wealth of small joys in a dumb movie about a talking cat. A lot of people have declared this a dull summer for major releases without any particular film standing out as a one-of-a-kind event, but I can’t imagine a more essential cinematic experience than that.

-Brandon Ledet

Elvis & Nixon (2016)




In 2011, Vanity Fair broke a real-life story about Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, and Liz Taylor hopping into a car for a road trip to Ohio to escape NYC during the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Yes, that really happened. Early this year, it was announced that this beyond bizarre story will be adapted as a made-for-British-TV movie, which is about the most perfect next logical step for that odd pop culture anecdote I could imagine & something I can’t wait to see. In the meantime, while we’re impatiently counting the hours until the Brando-Jackson-Taylor road trip comedy of our dreams materializes, we have a much more well-known odd pop culture anecdote to tide us over: Elvis & Nixon.

Written around the photo op/publicity stunt in 1970 when Elvis Presley visited the White House & was awarded an official title as a federal narcotics agent, Elvis & Nixon is a low-energy camp delight. Taking great pleasure in its own historical inaccuracies & caricaturist liberties, the film finds easy camp value in casting Michael Shannon as Elvis & Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon and propping the mismatched pair up in a room (the Oval Office, of all rooms) merely so it can stew in its own unlikelihood. The result isn’t anything mind-blowing or revolutionary, but it is an offbeat pleasure to behold.

A large part of what makes Elvis & Nixon an interesting exercise is its ridiculous casting. Despite wide cultural success on a much-watched Netflix drama, Kevin Spacey is in a weird moment of his career right now. His biggest silver screen role of 2016 is a business man who gets magically transformed into a cat so he can learn a life lesson, so his participation in this other camp delight kind of makes sense. Spacey’s Nixon impersonation is, predictably, serviceable and, although neither actor look any more like their respective historical figures than the stars of Bubba Ho-Tep, you can occasionally forget that you’re looking at a famous actor at certain moments in his performance. Michael Shannon, on the other hand, is still in the art film cycle of his career, having just starred in the brilliant sci-fi chase thriller Midnight Special, so it was amusing to see him pop up in something so goofy in a full-length role instead of a one-off cameo gag. Shannon’s Elvis is a singularly strange performance, maybe his weirdest outlier role since he played Kim Fowley in the Runaways movie.Thankfully, Elvis & Nixon knows exactly how interesting that performance is, allowing Shannon to dominate a majority of the screen time, relegating Spacey’s Nixon to a curiously small, supporting role despite what the title suggests.

Shannon plays Elvis with the weird, soft-spoken energy of a late-in-life Michael Jackson, portraying The King as an out-of-touch loner with unlimited cult of personality power. Elvis is acutely aware of how strange & eccentric he appears, intentionally leaving himself “buried under gold, jewels, and money” so that he becomes “an object” instead of a person, lost inside his own icon status & blending in with his own impersonators. Still, he’s dead serious about joining the War on Drugs and doesn’t care at all how many people he has to confuse or inconvenience to achieve that goal. Shannon’s Elvis is oddly delicate & childlike, but also a powerful force that won’t take “No.” for an answer, a perfect foil for Spacey’s much more realistic, but equally stubborn Nixon.

Elvis & Nixon finds its best possible self in its laidback, weirdly relaxed vibe. Instead of pushing for big, unlikely moments between The President & The King, the film instead finds lowkey fascination in a past-his-prime rock ‘n roller living out a fish-out-of-water comedy in a political atmosphere he knows nothing about. Why a presumably pilled-out millionaire would suddenly become so concerned about the rise of popularity of Communist leanings among hippies and attempt to stop the ways “drug culture is ruining our youth” is anybody’s guess, an avenue of inquiry the film’s barely interested in exploring. Elvis’s plan to win the war between “The Establishment” & “The Youth” is even more bizarre & seemingly half-baked once you realize he believes he can go “undercover” as a federal agent thanks to his experience in costume & disguise from his roles in dozens of feature films, despite having one of the most famous faces on the planet. How much of Elvis’s dedication to pro-Establishment/ant-drug sentiments is true to life is surely up for debate, but the movie is clearly just having fun with the absurdity of the idea, not at all dedicated to pursuing historical integrity.

Spacey’s Nixon is just one player among many (including a strange supporting cast of Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, and indie popstar Sky Ferreira) who are here to gawk at the bizarre presence of The King, with his weird little laugh, his outburst of amateur karate, and his large stockpile of firearms. Shannon plays the lowkey humor of the situation beautifully and Elvis & Nixon’s best moments are in watching the cultural icon perform simple tasks like watching television, eating a donut, and waving politely. The climactic meeting with Nixon promised in the title (and in the infamous photograph that inspired the film) is just icing on the highly unlikely, yet oddly enjoyable cake. Michael Shannon’s soft-spoken Elvis is the magic in the batter.

-Brandon Ledet