Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Jun 28, 2017 10:28 am 
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Tough and tender

Does the 23-year-old Ansel Elgort have a future as a mainstream movie star? From one angle he is a soft-faced dreamboat; from another, he's bland and ordinary. But he's 6'3", and as "Baby" in Edgar Wright's new movie, the indentured gangster driver in Atlanta bossed by Kevin Spacey, his baby face and large frame are in every scene and keep us in their gentle grip. Baby Driver is a typical Edgar Wright film, droll, relentless, and vivid. The concept is all, and as it turns out, that makes for somewhat diminishing returns. Wright hasn't the command of story or of classic genre of a master like Jean-Pierre Melville. How much more beautiful is the sad finale of Melville's Le Samouraï, whose setup Baby Driver's opening somehow resembles. But if you begin with a wild ride - Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, with Ryan Gosling, did the same - you are forced to a rollout of increasing excess. Wright wants this to be a movie dominated by humor and style, and it has plenty of these, but the increasingly violent action bash them down and he can only relieve the mess with a wishful thinking upbeat final montage.

We don't know for sure if Elgort can act, but he can move and enunciate, and in an early sequence, one of the best, he dodges and dances along the street with a grace that belies his size. Baby is a young man with a tragic past, with music in it. His mom was a singer. His parents died in a car crash, with him in the back, giving him a sorrow to forget, a bad case of tinnitus, and a fixation on driving. He wears ear buds and carries iPods and plays loud music nonstop to drown out the ringing in his ears. He buries himself in songs and behind shades, which seals him off from an outside world he is somehow also keenly aware of at all times: when the crime boss Doc (Spacey) asks him, he can repeat back all his instructions for a heist, despite his apparent abstraction while they're given. He has magical powers of concentration and of cool (as does Alain Delon, without the need of props, in Le Samouraï).

Baby lives with a deaf and disabled black foster father, Joe (CJ Jones), with whom he communicates in (subtitled for us) sign language. This is his home, and where his tapes and iPods lie. He also tape-records conversations, and uses excerpts to sample rifs for rap-style recordings. There isn't time for that but Wright crams in one gleeful sequence of it, with the baroque over-production of today's Hollywood.

We can't begrudge Wright, or Baby, his romance with the charming, if generic, Debora (Lily James), the doll-faced waitress he meets and woos at Bo's, the diner where his mom also briefly worked. The couple's project of escaping to take off for the west in a big car with no plan is woven through the increasingly violent, desperate finale, and softens and humanizes it, adding that necessary dash of romance and hope.

The opening sequence (as with Drive) is a display of ace car manoeuvering after a heist. Baby keeps the rhythm and run-time of his song list exactly right to match up with stages of the robbery and the getaway. Is the panache of the driver (Baby), the director, or the editor - or the stuntmen and manipulators of CGI? The trouble is that today we don't know. Luckily, there is the day-after sequence when an apparently jubilant Baby fetches coffees for the boss and some of the gang, dancing along the street to his ear bud music and dodging people. All this works and is fresh. And the music softens the violence for us, too.

We learn that for some reason Baby is in thrall to Doc and must pay him back by driving for a certain number of heists, but luckily Baby loves to drive (and is great at it, terrifyingly fast, deft, and bold) and considers himself and Doc to be a "team." The trouble is that subsequent heists don't go so well, and Baby finds himself forced to use a weapon in a heist doomed to fail. Moreover being paid up doesn't mean Doc will let Baby go.

Baby also has two nemeses among the gang members who aren't tossed out after each heist like some. The first is Bats, played by Jamie Foxx, of whom IMDb user critic M_Exchange wrote: "He does a great job of portraying an impossibly annoying, malicious jerk. He reminds me of so many Lyft passengers who I've picked up this year." Worse than that, I should think, since Bats causes a massacre of cops and arms dealers that tilts the plot toward doom. Foxx is doing patient drome work here: this role shows little of what makes him a good and watchable actor. Baby's other nemesis, still more lingering and pesky, is Buddy, played by Joe Hamm, looking ravaged and tough and apparently having fun as a man who won't seem to die even when kicked down an elevator shaft. What provides a certain pleasure even when the fun is diminishing is watching how Wright destroys characters yet keeping several of them indestructible almost to the bitter end.

What's not satisfying is the crimes. They're glossed over as if we wouldn't care. And here's where Melville trumps Wright again, damningly, since, after all, this is not pure style, as some have said, nor a musical as others would like, but a crime movie. However, I want to see Ansel Elgort in more movies. He and Kevin Spacey are almost believable as a team. Maybe Spacey's replacing Shailene Woodley (who was in four pictures with the young man) as Elgort's movie partner; at least the two men are together again in the upcoming Billionaire Boys Club. I wonder why the closing credits OF Baby Driver are so ugly and generic? It starts out so well. Terrific title, by the way. And anyway, coming at this time of year this is a gift. Our other choice is Okja, a Korean spectacular about Tilda Swinton and a giant pig.

Baby Driver, 113 mins., debuted 11 Mar. 2017 at SXSW Festival, and opened wide in the US 28 June.

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