Saturday, November 25, 2017

Baby Driver

Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, Sky Ferreira, Flea, Big Boi, Paul Williams
Running Time: 113 min
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

For anyone ever wondering what would happen if Quentin Tarantino made a musical, Baby Driver is just about the closest we're going to get.  While it's instead directed by Edgar Wright, it's impossible to watch without thinking his fingerprints are, at least in some small way, all over it.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering this is likely a lot less chatty and self-referential than his version would be. But the common ground they both find is in the music, which in this case is literally and figuratively driving the action forward at a breakneck pace. From the opening title sequence, during which our music-loving protagonist is lip syncing and dancing down the street to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms," we know we're in for something a little different. And that's exactly what's delivered, as this story about a quiet getaway driver in over his head is underlined with car chase scenes that look and feel like real car chases, mostly because they are.

The astonishing contradiction within Wright's overstylized, hyped-up universe is that it's grounded in a reality that feels authentic, even when it seems ridiculous. And there's plenty of ridiculousness. But it's never boring, as its nearly two hour run time flies by, until arriving at a third act that isn't quite as inspired as what preceded it, but undeniably exciting nonetheless. The calm center of this violent storm is Ansel Elgort's charismatic but low-key performance as the title character, officially marking his arrival as a major star, but more importantly, a talented actor worth watching.

Breaking one of the key rules of a lead character, we watch as everything happens to and around him, until he realizes his survival depends upon taking action. Despite a myriad of influences, Baby Driver never feels like a replication of anything, and that's praiseworthy in itself, proving a productive soundtrack can do more than provide background noise. Here, it's the foundation on which the entire film is built. Inseparable from the first frame, the music informs the action and that action returns the favor ten-fold.

Essentially a good kid who made a dumb choice, Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver in Atlanta, behind the wheel for a crew of armed robbers assembled by criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), who he's indebted to after stealing one of his cars. He's also really skilled wheel man expertly helping Doc's gangs continually evade capture after some big robberies. Blasting the music from his many iPods to drown out the humming in his ears caused by a childhood car accident that killed his parents, Baby anticipates his last job may finally be on the horizon.

Being free from his his debt could offer Baby the opportunity to properly look after and provide for his deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones), as well as cut ties with a seedy criminal underworld of thugs like the impulsively dangerous Bats (Jamie Foxx), former banker turned robber Buddy (Jon Hamm), and his wife, Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). And it's just when he appears to be done and grows closer to friendly diner waitress Debora (Lily James), he realizes there is no "out" with Doc. Or at least until he helps pull off one last big heist. But with volatile personalities and unanticipated complications involved, he'll have to make a choice between protecting those he loves and escaping alive.

For as comical and clever the dialogue is and the amount of fun, thrilling high-speed car chases there are, it's surprising just how much of the film is driven by fear and tension. The baby-faced hero has unwillingly entered a world in which he just doesn't fit and has been thrown into for reasons we know are at least partially his doing. There's a fragility to the character as Baby silently takes in Doc's carefully orchestrated plans and his makeshift band of thugs do their best to intimidate and bully him at every turn. It doesn't work. Or does it? We're not quite sure, which is one of the more intriguing aspects of the character, who makes mixtapes out of conversations and basks in the classic R&B pumping through his earbuds . There's a part of you thinking he must be scared out of his mind, while entirely different aspect to Elgort's performance is still suggesting this kid's been through too much in his life to even care.

Wright crafts a clever backstory, sporadically shown through flashbacks, that hints at this and offers up an effective explanation for his ipod obsession, while also working really well as tech nostalgia for viewers. After making gigantic impressions in The Fault in our Stars and even Men, Women and Children, Elgort takes it to a new level here, which isn't to suggest he does anything that's over the top. It's just the opposite, as so much of what he conveys is through silence and facial expressions, with most of his talking being with Debora, as they bond over their shared musical tastes. There's an easy rapport between the two that's never too schmaltzy or eye-rolling, and while it's easy to argue Lily James is saddled with a limited girlfriend role, at least she excels at it, sharing great chemistry with Elgort and becoming more important to the narrative as the film wears on.

Jon Hamm is given his best and most substantial big screen showcase to date as the smooth but dangerous Buddy, playing way against type in a villainous role he probably couldn't wait to sink his teeth into. Jamie Foxx is suitably scary, unpredictable and intimidating as Bats, a certifiable, button-pushing lowlife you just can't wait to see get his. There's also a fantastic cameo by Paul Williams (yes, THAT Paul Williams) that should have fans of his grinning from ear-to-ear at its sheer lunacy.

While it feels strange eulogizing the career of a still living actor, there's no avoiding the giant elephant in the room that is Kevin Spacey, since this could be the last time we see him featured this prominently in a top project. Luckily, it's a good one that reminds us how skilled he is at played sleazy schemers in positions of power. Make what you will of that statement, but supporting roles like this won't be nearly as interesting without him in them. The scenes wheres he faces off with Elgort are among the most memorable and the characters' working arrangement doesn't go completely as predicted.

The real star here are the chase scenes and soundtrack highlighted by a seemingly endless stream of 70's hits and non-hits. When the plot's heists go exactly according to plan, it's a joy to watch the mechanics of it all unfold, but when it doesn't, that's when things really get fun and the excitement comes in seeing the characters scramble and improvise. That's essentially the entire last act, highlighted by a sequence in which Wright brings the same propulsive energy and seamless stunt choreography of the car chases to one that takes place entirely on foot. That's impressive, but you get the feeling that little of it would be possible without that soundtrack, which ends up not only being the co-lead and star, but so much more a part of Baby's DNA than any superficial trait a lesser filmmaker would have concocted for him.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Stranger Things 2

Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Joe Keery, Dacre Montgomery, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser
Original Airdate: 2017

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The verdict is in: The Duffer Brothers clearly know what they're doing and there are strong indications they have a long-term plan in place that doesn't involve making things up as they go along. While this seems to be pointing out the obvious, it was far from a guarantee they'd be capable of delivering a sophomore season as strong as the first. In fact, it was extremely doubtful.  But wherever you land on Stranger Things 2, everyone could agree that the only major factor missing this time around is the shock and awe accompanying a new series without expectations. The thrill of discovery surrounding a project that was shopped around to every studio before Netflix took a calculated risk that paid off hugely. These guys had years to hone that first season so it was just right, and couldn't have anticipated they'd be writing any beyond that. Now, the game's changed. It became a worldwide sensation and the kids are superstars. The real challenge begins.

Stranger Things 2 Title Card
The test is to now somehow write and shoot a worthy follow-up within a year's time or face the wrath of extremely fickle binge-watchers more than happy to move on to the next big thing. And with the expectation there will be a few more seasons, they can't burn through the story too fast, as the child actors are aging and maturing on screen at an increasingly rapid rate. But don't go too slowly either and risk falling into the trap of The X-Files or Lost because we want answers, dammit. The great thing about this series is that it actually gives us those, and quickly, sometimes within the confines of a single episode before moving on to what's next. That's the benefit of a single digit episode order. It moves quickly enough to never be bored and isn't around long enough to overstay its welcome.

So, yes, second seasons can be really tough. And it's important to point out just how creatively trying they can be in order to truly appreciate what's done here. Yes, they've essentially replicated the same formula, but isn't that what we wanted?  By expanding the scope of the universe we were blown away by last year, they raise the stakes, further developing characters we grew attached to while even incorporating purposeful, intriguing new ones into the fold.

In its own way, this follow-up is as much of success as could be hoped for, and a good cause for relief and excitement that this wasn't the one-trick pony some skeptics had assumed. That for all its 80's influences and Spielbergian touches, it isn't just some trip down nostalgia lane. While opinions will vary as to how well it stacks up against its preceding chapters as it heads toward the finish line, it's still as tight and meticulously plotted as anything else out there. Logically continuing what preceded it while whetting your appetite for more, it's a real stretch to find any source of disappointment in the thrilling nine episodes of a series that quite literally turned the sci-fi genre upside down last year.

A traumatized Will returns to school
It's almost one year after Will Byer's (Noah Schnapp) disappearance into the Upside Down, and despite returning home to his mother Joyce (Winona Wyder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), he's still having problems coping, plagued with continuous nightmares and visions of his traumatic experience. It's also been that long since Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) have seen Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) whose whereabouts are still unknown after using her psychokinetic powers to defeat the Demogorgon.

As the lovesick Mike mourns El's absence, the boys have turned their attention to the new girl in town, a red-haired, skateboarding, arcade champ named Max (Sadie Sink), who's moved to Indiana from California with her sociopathic step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery).  He also steps on the turf of Hawkins High School's reigning alpha male and returning hero, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), whose relationship with Mike's sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is again on shaky ground as she becomes obsessed with exposing Hawkins Laboratories' role in Barb's death, enlisting Jonathan's help.

Gruff, grumpy Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is also attempting to move on, investigating a mysterious rash of contaminated pumpkin patches that may or may not be connected to the new tenant at Hawkins Labs, Dr. Sam Owens (Paul Reiser) a Department of Energy executive who's also taken an interest in Will's condition. But Hopper's continued concern for Joyce and Will is somewhat infringed upon by Joyce's new boyfriend, the dorky Bob Newby (Sean Astin), a former classmate who now runs the local RadioShack.

Dusty, Joyce and Max express concern for Will
All these characters will be jolted out of their relative complacency when a dreaded threat returns to Hawkins, more dangerous than ever. The question is whether they'll be able to fight it this time without El's help. Or if she'll even be able to return to reunite with her friends, and possibly get a chance at trying to live a somewhat normal childhood, free from government experimentation and interference.

This season is all about tandems, with our already well-established favorites and some newcomers pulled in different directions, often opposite characters you wouldn't expect. El and Hopper. Steve and Dustin. Joyce and Bob. Nancy and Jonathan. Max and Lucas. Max and Dustin. Max and Lucas and Dustin. Dustin and a slimy pet Pollywog. Once again, after being absent for most of the first season due to his abduction into the Upside Down, Will is the odd-man out, as his friends have attempted to resume their lives while realizing something is still very, very wrong with him. Whether this is entirely psychological (in the form of some kind of PTSD) or physical or something else, it forms much of the groundwork for these nine chapters.

We do find out what Eleven has been up to since she single-handedly saved Hawkins and Hopper was leaving Eggos in the woods. While she spends nearly the entirety of this season cut off from the whole crew, it isn't without a purpose, as the El/Hopper story is the most successful of many overlapping plots. The thrilling results come every time David Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown share the screen together in a makeshift father/daughter relationship that complicatedly manages to be both adversarial and loving at the same time.

Eleven "channels" Poltergeist in Hopper's cabin
While Hopper's holding El in seclusion for her own safety and and can't comprehend how she could even consider risking her life to break his "three rule" code of the cabin, his hubris allows him to forget who he's dealing with here: A human lab experiment who's been poked, prodded and held captive for much of her life until she finally found real friends and a chance at a normal existence. So while the temporary living arrangement is for her own safety, it can't help but feel to her like another round of mandatory detainment. Hopper's no Dr. Brenner and has her best interests in mind, but to El he may as well be in so far as his standing in the way of her freedom.

What's even more impressive and expressive about Brown's performance this time around is how she starts to become this angry adolescent, and El isn't exactly someone you want to make angry, regardless of her age or size. One of the season's best scenes involve her and Hopper arguing and the viewer genuinely fearing for this tough, no-nonsense sheriff's life as she dangerously hurls objects at him with her mind, as the show completely reimagines the stakes of a father disciplining a child. The subtext here, of course, is that she's filling void left by the passing of Hopper's own daughter, infusing the encounter with twice the emotion.  El discovering how and when to use these "gifts" is at the crux of her journey toward understanding her true self: Jane Ives.

Locating her comatose birth mother and unraveling the mystery of her time spent at the lab leads to the polarizing self-contained episode, "The Lost Sister," where Eleven tracks down childhood labmate, Eight, A.K.A. Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) and discovers she's been using her powers more nefariously, leading a NYC street gang in crime sprees. While the episode's objective is pretty clear in guiding El to discover her true purpose and return to help her friends, it's a narrative and stylistic detour for a show that hasn't taken one up to this point. Sure, it was a risk, but not as enormous of one as some have been claiming and occasionally even bemoaning. While you could question whether this deserved a bottle chapter and contend it vaguely resembled a lost Heroes episode, it hardly curbed any of the momentum of the main storyline back in Hawkins.

"Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister"
If anything, it's a testament to how good the other episodes are that viewers' tolerance for anything else was so low. And it's not like this is just "anything else" either. El's arguably the series' most valuable character so donating a full episode to her personal arc and leaving Hawkins behind for 40 minutes is hardly a capital offense.
The episode works largely because of the turns from Brown and Berthelsen, whose Eight will almost surely return down the road. This effectively plants the seeds for that eventual story but you have to wonder that if the reaction to this one episode was so inexplicably harsh, how game the Duffers are going to be to take what will need to be even bigger risks if the show continues for multiple seasons. Or more importantly, whether this affected how much rope Netflix will give them to do it.

Of that action back in Hawkins, there's so little to complain about that we're basically just checking off boxes in terms of the varying degrees to which everything clicked. But what impressed most was how creatively the four new characters were weaved into the series. Seamlessly, purposefully, and without distraction, they each added important components in driving the story forward, but special mention should be made of new girl Max and the incomparable Bob Newby, as both Sadie Sink and Sean Astin respectively knock their roles out the park.

As the closed-off tomboy crush of both Lucas and Dusty, Max essentially becomes El's stand-in for the season, much to Mike's disdain. It's a role that could have easily been thankless, with attempts at adding her to the group possibly drawing as much scorn and skepticism from viewers as it does Mike. But Sink's a natural, masking "MadMax'"s recent history of verbal and possibly physical abuse at the hands of stepbrother Billy with a tough, seemingly impenetrable exterior the boys need to break down. Once they do, it's fun to watch Lucas and Dusty battle for the attention of the latest female recruit to the gang without a number to her name.

Sean Astin as Bob Newby
We're not sure what to make of Joyce's new boyfriend Bob, who seems to be trying so ridiculously hard to win the affections of Will and Jonathan that we're sure he has to be up to something. No one could possibly be this transparent, and if the rumors are true that the Duffers did initially conceive him to be manipulating them before Sean Astin's performance convinced them to change course, I'd believe it.  As Bob, Astin gives this perfectly calibrated, open-hearted turn as a type of honest, normal character we don't see enough of on screen anymore. He's a literal "Mr. Nice Guy" who does what he says and says what he does, frequently going out on a limb to help others without expecting anything in return.

The enthusiasm and sincerity Astin brings to the role and how it so thoroughly subverts our expectations of what we assume the character will do is possibly the season's greatest accomplishment. Whether dispensing incorrect but well-intentioned advice to Will or selflessly making a fool of himself to make others smile, the RadioShack manager is this year's Barb, but even better, as Astin seems to accomplish all of it by seemingly just being himself.

While casting nostalgic stars like Ryder, Modine, Reiser and Goonies alum Astin in an 80's set sci-fi series could have reeked of the worst kind of satiric self-awareness, his work here proves why it doesn't. The writing and performances deliver the goods, with the actors' histories serving as merely the cherry on top, adding a clever meta-subtext to what they do. And it's the only middle-aged Winona Ryder role that's come close to recapturing her trademark weirdness and unpredictability she displayed early on in in films like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. If we know one thing about her, it's that the odder the material gets, the better she is.

Steve and Dusty team up
By reaching for accuracy and believability in depictions of these characters and the period, we buy into the more fantastical, unbelievable stuff without hesitation. That's particularly true when it comes to the kids, who curse and antagonize each other in a manner very unlike what we see in much of today's overly sanitized, too sweetly positive portrayals of kids in film and television. If it's true the latter approach merely a reflection of a modern era where participation trophies are mandatory, then it's only fair the Duffers get credit for completely ignoring it, writing entirely through the prism and time period in which their story takes place, as well as the pop culture surrounding it.

The kids' sharp-witted, hilarious argument concerning who should be Winston when they dress up as Ghostbusters for Halloween represents the series at its best in nailing those small details. Or even just the character of Billy, who comes across more as a full-blown psychopath than your typical schoolyard bully, until the realization dawns on us that this is exactly what constituted a bully back then. His inexplicable hatred toward Lucas has us wondering whether he's also a racist, but by letting that possibility sit there as his actions speak for itself is more frightening than any outright acknowledgment would be. In a way, we don't want to know.

Whatever the root of Billy's anger (and we're given many indications), a lot of it is misdirected at Steve, whose redemption arc at the end of last season was one of the series' more surprising rewards. This season finds him thrown into kind of a big brother role that not only suits the character well, but gives us some priceless scenes of him mentoring Dustin as only Steve can. It's small treasures like that and even Nancy and Jonathan's trip to see wacky conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), who offers up some shockingly sound and smart advice on how to properly expose the danger in Hawkins.

Eleven and Mike reunite at the Snow Ball
In the season finale, the Duffers do something I'm not sure many other showrunners would even bother delegating the time for. After the action's essentially been resolved and the kids can go back to life as usual (or as "usual" as it gets in Hawkins) much of that episode is spent with these characters processing the aftermath and their connections with one another. There's no doubt many of them have evolved a great deal and we're given these little moments toward the end that remind us for all the Spielberg and Stephen King comparisons the series justifiably receives, it just as heavily influenced by John Hughes movies, if not more so.

Getting these nuances right wouldn't mean as much if the big stuff didn't also work just as well the second time around, like new shades of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's 80's electronic score and the use of practical effects in conjunction with CGI in an effort to stay true to the period. Whatever they've done, it's worked again, as everything looks and sounds great. They basically took what they did in the first season and amped it up, in some ways making it bigger and better visually without losing so much of the character development that initially hooked viewers onto the show. And too think at one point we doubted they could even have a second season, much less one that nearly equals its first.

Now, the new problem will be producing more at a rate of quality that can sustain three or four additional seasons of story. What will this even look like when the kids get older?  Could we get a time jump where we see them as adults? Is the series' style and story so entrenched in the 1980's that it couldn't possibly leave that time period and survive? Every season can't end with El defeating the Demogorgon, can it? These are questions that will likely necessitate a lot of pondering in Netflix offices, and I'm not sure those even scratch the surface in terms of mapping out a future for this show. The good news is that these nine episodes bring with it considerably more hope that they can.