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

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

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three star

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The convenience of films with titles like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that you pretty much know ahead of time whether or not you’ll be on board with what they’re selling. Do you enjoy costume dramas? Are you not yet completely exhausted by the staggering amount of zombie media out there? Surely there are enough people who sit comfortably in both categories. Just take a random polling of attendees and any Tori Amos or Rasputina concert & you’re bound to find a few.  And you can count me among them. I can enjoy a good, middling costume drama any day of the week & I’m more or less in the same camp when it comes to mediocre zombie mayhem (although that genre tests my patience more every coming year). I never bothered reading the print version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which the film’s opening credits claims is a “Quirk Book series classic”) because it seemed kind of mindless & arbitrary, but luckily mindless & arbitrary are two attributes of genre cinema I can usually get behind. Basically what I’m saying is I knew approximately how I was going to feel about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies before I even got to the theater and I suspect most people are in the same boat. The film itself did little to exceed or subvert expectation, but honestly I was fine with that.

As you might expect with a literary adaptation where zombies are air-dropped into a classical work, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies somehow keeps its Jane Austen plot & its zombie mayhem somewhat separate. Early scenes show young maidens cleaning guns instead of sewing (or something similarly ladylike) & including knives in their garters & corsets dress-up montages, but for the most part its polite society parlor drama & the zombie killing rampages mix about as well as oil & water. The film has fun with genre-bending lines like “Zombies or no zombies, all women must think of marriage, Lizzie” & “I don’t know which I admire more: your strength as a warrior or your resolve as a woman,” but its two plot lines rarely bleed together in a satisfying way. On one hand you have a small gang of unmarried sisters trying to land wealthy beaus while staying true to themselves. Happening almost entirely somewhere else: the zombie apocalypse & an alternate history of England as a country. The film’s line of horror comedy is mostly an occasional interjection that disrupts these dueling plot lines. For a film with such a winking joke of a premise Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes both ends of its titular mashup surprisingly seriously.

There is exactly one thing that stuck surprisingly  astute with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a Jane Austen adaptation. One thing the film does very well is to bring attention to the way Austen’s characters are viciously combative in their hushed, “polite” conversation. During scenes that might’ve played as subtle verbal sparring on the page are accompanied here by not-subtle-at-all literal sparring. For each verbal jab someone throws at their societal opponent a corresponding jab is thrown with a fist. A perpetually slumming-it Charles Dance (who now has a history of working in this realm thanks to Victor Frankenstein & Dracula Untold) plays the girls’ paterfamilias & describes his progeny as “our warrior daughters”. It’s true that the girls were already warriors in the zombieless Jane Austen source material, but their modes of violence & agency were a little less easily detectable. God help any desperate high school student who tries to pass an exam on Pride and Prejudice by watching this film, but the thematically obtuse might get a better understanding of the novel’s modes of societal combat by watching it play out visually on the screen.

That small insight aside, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is mostly a silly endeavor, never entirely serious about engaging with its source material in any sincere way. It’s also not all that committed to the zombie end of its premise. The monster make-up is solidly on point, but the film shies away from the gore end of the genre that made folks like George Romero & Peter Jackson masters of the form. Hardcore Pride and Prejudice fans and hardcore zombie movie fans are both likely to find plenty to gripe about here, since the film splits its time between both halves without  ever fully committing to either. The ideal audience, then? I’d say folks easily impressed by costume dramas who wouldn’t mind a little zombie mayhem peppering the genre for superfluous flavor are most likely to enjoy themselves. Pride and Prejudice fans are likely to be annoyed by how the novel’s feminist themes are cheapened by being boiled down to sexy women playing with weapons in complicated underwear. Zombie creature feature nerds are likely to be bummed by how the genre’s go-for-broke gore has been mostly supplanted by bodice-heaving romance. Personally, I took perverse pleasure in both of those aspects (especially the part about the complicated underwear; can’t help myself). For me, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ worst crimes are being a little overlong & having the gall to flash back to earlier scenes from within its own film in an especially-lazy letter-reading scene. For a film that sets the bar so low & expectations so specific in its very title & premise, those are two faults I’m more than willing to forgive.

Side note: I love how insular casting in the costume drama/fantasy cinema world can be. Besides Game of Thrones‘ Charles Dance & Lena Headey, there’s Lily James of Downton Abbey & Cinderella, Maleficent‘s Sam Riley, Noah‘s Douglas Booth, and (my personal favorite) Boardwalk Empire‘s Jack Huston. I guess you could include Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith in there as well, given that series’ time-jumping aspects. I’m sure for the actors this kind of typecasting can be an annoyance, but as an audience I find it oddly fascinating.

-Brandon Ledet