Baby Driver

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***1/2 (out of five)

Baby Driver starts with an outstanding car chase shot, edited, sound-designed and basically completely engineered around the song Bellbottoms (1994) by The John Spencer Blues Explosion. It is a thrilling sequence of pure cinema, exquisitely crafted and cool as f**k. Nothing in the film reaches those pre-credit heights again, and almost every scene that doesn’t have a car or a gun in it is cringe-worthy, but as an aesthetic rush and a fun romp it’s worth taking in at the best cinema you can. You want to see and hear this thing properly.

Edgar Wright, like Nicolas Wynding Refn and Ben Wheatley, is a European “star” director; their names are prominent on the poster and are considered marketable assets, often more than the actors. All three are directly and unashamedly influenced by Quentin Tarantino and, like Tarantino, more by other movies than by real life. Wright kicked off his motion picture career with the classic zombie parody Shaun Of The Dead (2004), achieved brilliance with Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, and then had a big stumble with The World’s End. Shaun, Fuzz and End – known as “The Cornetto Trilogy” – are linked genre riffs, while Pilgrim is a legit comic adaptation and Baby Driver, like Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), is a legit “driver” movie, descended from Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver, about a getaway driver with nerves of steel and very few words.

Drive took its driver into the darkest possible territory, and Refn’s spin was graphic violence: The Driver meets Taxi Driver. Wright’s spin is pop music, and his film is bright, colourful and as eager to please as a fluffy puppy – The Driver meets The Blues Brothers. The gimmick is that our driver, actually named Baby (Ansel Elgort), due to tinnitus and a childhood traumatic event, can’t drive properly without listening to his groovy mixtapes, and has earphones (specifically connected to a range of retro iPods) constantly feeding his brain. This allows Wright to virtuosically stage the film’s five or so big set-pieces to music in a blatantly self-conscious way, incorporating slamming doors, gunfire and even lines of dialogue into the beat. The term “balletic” has been applied to gun-battles since John Woo’s work of the 1990s, but these action sequences are literally choreographed to the music, so that, essentially, they feel like dance numbers in a musical.

Elgort (who has a big young female audience from his role in The Fault In Our Stars) manages to hold the centre as Baby, although halfway through I imagined mid-90s Edward Norton in the part, and can’t get the perfection of that, impossible as it is, out of my head. Lily James plays a very sweet very adorable very innocent diner waitress who, of course, has no problem helping kill bad guys two days after meeting Baby. Kevin Spacey is surprisingly adorable as the Big Bad Boss, Jamie Foxx is menacing if often inaudible as the heist team’s most unstable element, and Eliza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, Lanny Joon and Flea (!) round out Spacey’s stable of thieves. But one performance stands apart, lifts the movie and gives us something more to enjoy than music and motors. John Hamm plays the most complicated and intriguing of the crims, and he’s fantastic. Like all the others, his character Buddy is an archetype, another spin on another trope, but Hamm gives him texture and depth. Amidst the chaos and the iPods, he makes you care.

 

RULES DON’T APPLY

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***1/2 (out of five)

Warren Beatty’s fifth feature film as a director – and his first as an actor since Town and Country, sixteen years ago – is breezy, charming and fun fun fun. Like its auteur and its subject, it is simultaneously old-fashioned and au currant; its authentic retro-ness is also its badge of hip.

That subject is Howard Hughes, which is not to say that Hughes is the protagonist (as he was in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004).) That would be Hughes’ employee Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), a driver among Hughes’ stable of drivers hired to drive around Hughes’ stable of young female “starlets”, from the houses he put them up in to the ballet classes and beauty regimes he sent them to. The time is the 1960s, and Hughes’ ownership-like treatment of his young beauties – many of whom had yet to feature in a film during their incredibly weird apprenticeship – would be a throwback to a decades-ago studio contract system, if the studio contract system had been this strange.

Hughes himself was strange, and is portrayed as very much so by Beatty, who was 78 when he shot this but playing Hughes in his fifties. During the course of the film he develops a codeine addiction (the story spans six years) which seems to affect his judgement; he also had a raft of other mental difficulties, including pretty serious OCD, at least according to The Aviator. Being enormously wealthy, of course, he was called “eccentric” more often than “insane”, and “Mr. Hughes” by his multitude of employees even as he gave them ever more blatantly lunatic tasks.

As one of those employees, Frank has to abide by a raft of Hughes’ rules, one of which forbids assignations between the drivers and the “starlets”. The arrival of Marla Mabray (Lily Collins) throws a spanner in the works, as an attraction develops between her and Frank. Trouble is, she also has an intense fascination – a crush, really – on Hughes, setting the stage for a very tricky love triangle.

Collins is excellent, but Ehrenreich – who has been cast as the young Han Solo in the next Star Wars standalone – is sensational. He’s a Made Movie Star, as far as I’m concerned, purely on the basis of his performance here and in Hail, Caesar! He looks disarmingly like a young Leonardo DiCaprio (who played Hughes in The Aviator) but he looks smarter, and he’s funnier. He’s got it all, and I suspect he’s gonna get it all.

As for Beatty – he’s still got it, as an actor and a director. His Hughes is dynamic, funny and intriguing but refreshingly unsympathetic. The film is gorgeous – I mean, gorgeous – utilizing a heightened lighting style befitting a fable about Tinseltown. It’s generally zippy – the scenes are edited as leanly as is possible to imagine, giving new life to the adage “get in late, get out early”. But the third act lags and meanders, and its the screenplay’s fault. Beatty the writer was never as good as Beatty the actor, producer or director, and this effort shortchanges both the love story between Frank and Marla, and the character study of Hughes, by trying to do both at once. Still, it’s totally charming and absolutely worth two solid hours (and seven minutes, Hughes would be sure to add) of your time. Given his famously protracted deliberations, it is also almost certainly the last film we will ever get from Beatty the auteur. It’s a generous, warm, expansive and embraceable farewell.