Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

The Race Begins: 2017 Movie Update

The Race Begins: 2017 Movie Update

It's time for my updated list of awards potentials, art house gems, and personal prejudices.  

Back on March 12, we listed movies to look forward to in 2017.  Since then, dates have changed dates: some films moving to 2018, some jockeying for better dates, and some avoiding the looming Star Wars monster in December.  With summer movie season on the wane, and in the wake of the Toronto and Venice International Film Festivals' initial selections, here we go.

Guy S. Malone, Researcher

7/28 Atomic Blonde -- Charlize Theron, James McAvoy
Charlize is a comic book super spy who goes into Cold War Berlin and kicks ass.  Did I mention Charlize Theron is in it?

8/4 Detroit – Will Poulter, John Krasinski, John Boyega, Anthony Mackie
Kathryn Bigelow directs the factual drama, set in 1967, in which a Detroit police raid ignites one of the largest citizen uprisings in US history.

8/4 The Dark Tower – Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey
The first chapter of Stephen King series about Roland Deschain, a gunslinger who travels an Old West-like alternate dimension seeking the Man in Black and a legendary Dark Tower.

8/4 An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Documentary)
Al Gore brings us closer to an energy revolution.

8/4 (Limited) Wind River - Elizabeth Olson, Jeremy Renner, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham
Director Taylor Sheridan (Sicario and Hell or High Water writer) teams a rookie FBI agent and a veteran tracker to solve the mysterious death of a Native American girl on a remote reservation.

8/11 The Glass Castle – Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, Woody Harrelson
A girl comes of age learning to survive in a dysfunctional and poverty-stricken family consisting of an alcoholic father and eccentric artist mother.

9/15 Mother! – Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris
Paramount moved up the release of Darren Aronofsky's secretive psychological thriller to accommodate Venice Film festival competition and Toronto International Film Festival.

9/22 Battle of the Sexes - Emma Stone, Steve Carell
Based-on-truth story of the events surrounding the 1973 tennis challenge match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs.  Another festival invitee.

9/22 Kingsmen: The Golden Circle – Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Mark Strong
The sequel to the James Bond/Monty Python mash-up wherein our British heroes join their US counterparts, the Statesmen to take down super-villain (Julianne Moore).

9/29 Victoria and Abdul - Dame Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Michael Gambon
The true story about how Queen Victoria, against propriety and custom, strikes up a friendship with a clerk who has traveled from India to participate in the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Festival-bound.

10/6 Blade Runner: 2049 - Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Harrison Ford
Director Denis Villeneuve takes us 30 years after the original in which a young blade runner discovers a potential Earth-shattering secret that leads him to track down the original BR.

10/6 The Mountain Between Us - Kate Winslett, Idris Elba
Stranded on a snow-covered mountain after a plane crash, two passengers must work together to survive the bitter elements and find their way to safety. Festival invitee.

10/13 Marshall - Chadwick Boseman, Dan Stevens, Sophia Bush
(Previously unlisted) The early career of Thurgood Marshall, as he battles his way to become the first African American US Supreme Court Justice.

10/20 The Snowman – Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson. 
Detective Harry Hole tries to locate a missing woman, and his only clue is her pink scarf found tied around the neck of a snowman.

10/27 Suburbicon - Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin
Goerge Clooney directed, Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the comedy/crime mystery set in a suburban town where ordinary people turn to extraordinary stupidity and murder.  Venice and TIFF invitee.

11/? Wonderstruck – Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Cory Michael Smith          
Todd Haynes drama following the mysterious connection between a young Midwestern boy and a girl from fifty years earlier.

11/03  Thor: Ragnarok – Chris Hemsworth
Thor gets help from an A-list and bad-ass cast: Cate Blanchett, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, and Karl Urban

11/10 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson
Months after the murder of her daughter, a woman challenges the town's revered police chief to solve the mystery.  Martin McDonagh (In BrugesSeven Psychopaths) directs the dark comic drama.

11/10 Murder on the Orient Express – Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer
Dame Agatha Christie’s brilliant detective Hercule Poirot must solve the mystery of an American tycoon killed on the famous train.

11/17 Justice League - Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, J.K. Simmons
(Previously unlisted) Bruce Wayne (Batman) enlists the help of Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) to recruit Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash to face an attack of apocalyptic proportions.

11/22 (Limited) Darkest Hour - Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Lily James
In the late-1930s, Churchill versus Hitler.

12/8 (Limited) The Shape of Water – Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins, Michael Stuhlbarg
Guillermo del Toro fantasy-thriller, set in 1963, a cleaning woman falls for an aqua-man being captive in a testing laboratory.  Venice and TIFF invitee.

12/15 Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac
The continuing story of Rey’s epic quest to rake untolled sums of cash into Disney’s coffers.

12/20 Jumanji – Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillen, Jack Black, Kevin Hart
Kids in school detention find an old video game console.  When they play it they get sucked in and have to win the game in order to get out again.

12/22 The Current War - Benedict Cumberbatch, Katherine Waterston, Michael Shannon
Historical bio-drama about the competition between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to market a sustainable electrical system.

12/22 Downsizing – Matt Damon Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz
Alexander Payne social satire in which a man concludes his life would improve if he would shrink himself.  Venice opener, also at TIFF

12/22 (Lim.) The Papers - Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Michael Stuhlbarg
Steven Spielberg's historical drama about the Pentagon Papers scandal which spanned four presidential administrations, ultimately pitting journalists against the US government.

12/25 The Greatest Showman - Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson
Biopic about P.T. Barnum, founder of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus.

12/25 (Lim.) Phantom Thread (formerly: Untitled Paul Thomas Anderson Project) – Daniel Day-Lewis, Leslie Manville.  Drama set in the 1950s, a perfectionist dressmaker serves royalty and the highest echelon of British society.

TBD  Annihilation – Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac
Alex Garland sci-fi thriller; an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor join a biologist in search of her husband who went missing in an environmental disaster zone.

TBD Hostiles – Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Ben Foster
In late 19th Century, a cavalry officer reluctantly agrees to assist a Cheyenne chief and his family as they travel through hostile territory.

TBD Mudbound - Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund
Sundance favorite about racism in post-WWII Mississippi.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming

We understand the reticence to get out to see the 73rd reboot of the web-slinger's story (I know, it just feels that way) because, well, how many time can we reheat and rehash?  Some good news: this newest entry into the Marvel universe gets off to a quick start, picking up where The Avengers: Civil War left off, saving us from the tedium of a Wayback Machine return to the initial bite, Uncle Ben's fate, and so on.  More good news, Director Jon Watts makes the most of his big break, delivering laughs and lumps in equal measure in a fast-paced fun adventure.  Marvel fans should know that this film is about a kid and it is directed toward kids--Homecoming does, literally, lead toward a high school Homecoming.  Tom Holland's Peter Parker is a wide-eyed goofy geek who is as convincing as a high school sophomore as he is as a 15-year-old whose super-power reach exceeds his adolescent-mind grasp.  And those of us who savored the appetizer he served in Civil War enjoyed the main course, even if its 133-minute runtime was a tad long.

High school sophomore Peter Parker fresh off of that adventure counts Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) among his friends, but not a close friend, although Stark would like to get closer to Peter's Aunt May (a criminally underused Marisa Tomei).  Peter's not an Avenger, either; he has an "internship" with Stark Enterprises, and Stark uses right-hand man Happy (Jon Favreau) to watch over Peter from afar (not far enough for Happy).  By night, Peter is the web-slinging hero--especially to gorgeous senior Liz (Malia Obama Laura Harrier), who also happens to be Peter's dream girl.  He has little hope of ever getting closer because he is a dopic underclassman, and of course, there is that secret identity requirement thingy.  So, he must admire her from afar.  Good thing Liz is also the student leader of the Academic Decathlon team of which Peter is one of the stars.  All of the usual high school suspects are here: Peter's best friend and updated Sancho Panza, Ned (Jacob Batalon); wryly observant outcast Michelle (Zendaya); too-cool bad boy, Flash (Tony Revolori, whom you will remember as Zero from The Grand Budapest Hotel).  All intertwine in the days leading up to the big AD competition in Washington, DC and subsequently, the high school Homecoming Dance.

Meanwhile, on another side of town, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) leads a salvage crew, cleaning up after the latest Avengers destructive battle that had laid waste to blocks of the city and left behind the wreckage of a bunch of alien technology.  Toomes and his crew are looking forward to a big payday, marketing alien rare metals and power sources until Tyne Daly, as a cameo bureaucrat, shows up, representing Stark Industries and the government.  Her military-industrial complex shoos away the working stiffs, but not before Toomes retreats with enough booty to start his own cottage arms dealership and a giant chip on his shoulder.  And, oh yes, enough materiel to rig himself up as himself as the city's newest twisted evil genius, the Vulture.

Naturally, this is where the two subplots converge, and the rest of the film toggles between: A)  Spidey's quest for both a high school Academic Decathlon championship and lovely Liz; B) the Vulture's reign of terror, abetted by his loyal henchman, Herman Schultz, AKA Shocker #2 (Bokeem Woodbine); C) Spiderman's pursuit of the Vulture and his gang; and, of course, 4) Peter's/Spider-Man's attempts to keep his alter-ego identity a secret.  Watts and the small army of script writers deftly balance each of those four elements while adding loads of humor, shenanigans, action, and a couple of nice surprises.

If you were starting to think the Avengers franchise is getting like McDonald's--more added on top of more--indestructible nemeses, an overabundance of superheroes, bloated battle finales, ever-escalating stakes--fear not; Spider-Man: Homecoming is blessedly minimalist.  In fact, if it weren't for Robert Downey, Jr., a few Avenger (and Stan Lee) cameos, and the trademark sense of humor, you might not recognize it as an entry in the Marvel universe.  It captures a John Hughes-like high school atmosphere, with a regular guy turned villain who is a menace only to the city, not the world.  And it is refreshing not to share the burden of a superhero's angsty melodramatic soul-searching.   This scaling back is most welcome, as it brings humanity and characters to which we can relate.

8.0 out of 10 on the Entertainment Scale
6.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (long-shot in a few technical areas)

Darren Aronofsky's Mother! Changes Release Date

Darren Aronofsky's Mother! to be released September 15, 2017 -- Guy S. Malone, Researcher

The most secretive film of the year (of several years, maybe) is Darren Aronofsky's Mother!  The cast and crew have been sworn to secrecy; they rehearsed for six months in a warehouse in New York, then he filmed (on 16mm film, a rarity anymore) in secret in a rural area outside of Montreal.  If you look for a synopsis of the film, you will only find the nebulous: "Centers on a couple whose relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence."

Adding to the intrigue surrounding this film is recent news that the release date was moved up, from October 13 to September 15.  No one at Awards Watch, Gold Derby, IndieWire, or any of the entertainment news or critical sites have any idea what to expect--awards bait, art house indie, or experimental cinema.  They all agree, though, that the director who studied Film and Social Anthropology at Harvard and brought us the disturbing and surreal Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and Black Swan will have something unique in store.  Aronofsky's films are either critically acclaimed or polarizing and, with a few exceptions, run too far outside the norm to be the kinds of films Oscar embraces, although he is known for driving his actors past their boundaries.  The guess right now is an indie art house dramatic thriller that some say might border on horror.  There is talk of the plot involving a cult, the breakdown of society, and, of course, there is the cryptic poster that showed up on Mother's Day: an artistic rendering of Jennifer Lawrence innocently offering up her heart that was seemingly ripped from a gaping hole in her chest.

What we do know: The film's budget was only $13 million.  At that rate, the all-star cast--Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig (2 Oscar wins and 15 Oscar nominations among them)--must have cut their normal salary demands to work the project.  Add a score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario, The Theory of Everything, Arrival), and, sight unseen, Mother! has piqued the interest of cinephiles.  

Mainstream audiences--who knows?  Aronofsky seems to have taken on the responsibility for marketing his film.  A teaser trailer accompanied selected movies this week, and it has audiences talking: a black screen with a cacophony of voices in the background, Lawrence screaming "Mother" with her eyes flashing for seconds, ending with the title. For the past few days, Aronofsky has been traveling west from NYC with one of the film's photographers, taking pictures of abandoned landmarks and describing them on his Twitter feed with the film's title superimposed.  Here is a link to his latest picture, the old Sideling Hill tunnel on the Pensylvania Turnpike:

Given our long-standing admiration for Aronofsky, Lawrence, Bardem, Pfeiffer, and Harris--and our more recent respect for Gleeson, Wiig, and Jóhannsson, we relish the mystery surrounding this movie.  And after our most anticipated movie of the year, Dunkirk, we most eagerly await our visit to see Mother!.

Over-rated! Part Two of a Critique of Critics

Over-rated!  Part two of a critique of critics by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed Rotten Tomatoes' fundamentally flawed rating system and the new wave of critic-bloggers, some of whom have questionable credentials, intentions, vested interests, and prejudices.  This week, we will look at the larger picture: Film criticism as it stands in the US today.

Journalism is in trouble.  That's no secret.  More newspapers are folding or reducing staff, going to tabloid format or, in some cases, moving to electronic format only.  And it's not just small and medium-sized town papers, although their demise has been the canary in the coal mine.  How many of us have gotten solicitations to subscribe to the Boston Globe, NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and others?  Newspapers are mining for readers, and they are fighting to keep the readership they already have.  The best way to build and maintain readership is, to coin an old country music phrase: "Do what you do do well."

But then, not everyone is a Katharine Graham or an H.L. Mencken, or a Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert.  And even those that approach that level are stressed by the pressure to sell papers.  So, some go the sensationalist route, pandering to the voyeur, the mean-spirited, the salacious--appealing to the basest in human nature.  Because, to many in America right now, the bottom line comes above all--and nastiness is a booming market.

Ironically, this watering down--and in some cases, poisoning--of the critical gene pool comes at a time when the critical community enjoys unprecedented and inordinate power. There is an old saying: "With great power comes great responsibility."  There's another old saying: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  This is an alarming development for film-makers and their multi-million dollar investments in an age when "screenings"--preview, by invitation only, showings for masses of critics and select viewers--are increasingly common.

True, some open their films at festivals--especially international festivals--where serious cinephiles and ethical international critics judge films based on their art and craft rather than preconceived notions and prejudices that increasingly dominate US screenings.  Film makers often place embargoes on public criticism until opening weekend, but leaks happen.  The leaks aren't the problem, though.  Critics attend screenings before general audiences get a chance to judge a film on their own, and afterward a sort of group think evolves (if critics A and B agree over martinis that a film or a performance stinks, it puts great pressure on critic C to come to the same conclusion)--a common narrative that either promotes or, worse, blatantly undermines a film before audiences get a chance to form their own opinions.  They take self-important pride in building stars up and tearing them down, and they take self-righteous stances on what films are worth seeing and what films to avoid.  And, as we stated in Part One, too many moviegoers rely on Rotten Tomatoes to decide on what films to see.

This can be terrifying for film makers because the first weekend can make or break a film, and screenings can make or break the first weekend.  Critics recognize this, and woe to the director or star that refuses an interview, or a studio that doesn't give due deference to the all-powerful critics because vengeance can be wicked.  

A tangent that will eventually bring me back to my main point.  Gold Derby is one of my favorite sites for articles, videos, and news about film.  GD's awards handicapping is fun and informative.  The Gold Derby forums used to be a place for stimulating discussion, and they still are to a significant degree.  Over the past several years, though, more trolls and haters have appeared, harpies and bullies that have picked several directors and actors (mostly actresses) to tear down every chance they get.  Ironically, these self-obsessed "experts" are rarely capable of articulating their disdain beyond the vapid descriptor "overrated."  

A few months ago, this group took off on a thread about the many critics that follow their discussions, arguing that the Gold Derby discussions can shape professional critics' opinions of films, actors, and directors.  At first, I thought it was simple hubris, but the correlation between the petty prejudices of these forum gangs and the petty mob mentality of the critic-bloggers indicates that the two nasty collections of humanity may have a symbiotic relationship.  And at this juncture, I should point out that Internet bloggers, fan sites, and other media that covers pop culture feed into this frenzy with titillating headlines that scream, "CLICK HERE!"

A few examples: A general consensus of these groups (a handful of dissenters aside) is that among directors, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg can do no wrong and David O. Russell can do no right.  Most actors have pockets of supporters and detractors that balance each other out, though Johnny Depp and Will Smith get a lot of shade thrown their way.  

As a group, though, it is always open season on actresses, with a direct correlation between the level of hatred and the deadly triforce: youth/beauty/talent.  These ladies can't win: the standard for perfection is so high that anything less is cause for convening the Inquisition.  And the media insists in constantly pitting them against each other.  Meryl Streep, of course, is on that Scorsese-Spielberg Nirvana level, and Cate Blanchett approaches it--unless a Blanchett fan commits the sin of comparing her to Streep.  Kate Winslett love/hate teeters on the precipice of whether or not an individual loves Titanic.  

Not so fortunate were Kristen Stewart, whose sin of making the Twilight movies rivals that of animal abuse in some quarters.  After a thoroughly chastised K-Stew beat feet into European art-house seclusion, the Purity Police determined that Anne Hathaway was just too much of a goody two-shoes and she needed her angel-wings singed. The current whipping-girl is Jennifer Lawrence, whose sins include being down-to-earth and well liked and respected by industry peers, being an outspoken feminist, standing up for equal pay, calling out bigotry, and flipping the bird at Donald Trump.  J-Law's biggest sin, though, is something she herself despises: the fanatic media coverage that supersaturates the landscape with coverage of her every move.  Eventually, the haters move on, as they have for Charlize Theron, who weathered the storm several years ago and returned to the pedestal.  Margot Robbie is still enjoying her honeymoon period, but then that might be because she hasn't won the big award yet.  Witness the uptick in hatred for the two most recent Best Actress winners: Brie Larson and Emma Stone.  All they need to reach the fury-of-a-thousand-suns level is more media coverage and a few more awards.  

What does all of this have to do with critics?  Too many of them follow (suck up to) the crowd of trolls, fanboys, haters, and cool kids.  There are trash sites, like TMZ and Jezebel, simply click bait sewers.  Variety used to be a standard of the film industry, but some of their editorial decisions in recent years have been trashy, and they are descending to the levels of the tabloids.  

For the purpose of a point, we will cite Entertainment Weekly and its comparative treatment of Charlize Theron and Jennifer Lawrence.  For several years, Jennifer Lawrence was their darling, a love affair that peaked when she was named their Entertainer of the Year in November 2015.  The backlash in the comment sections must have been more than EW could bear, though because they haven't had a positive thing to say about her or her films since.  EW reviews of all of Lawrence's subsequent films have been significantly lower than the average score on Metacritic (IMDb's aggregate site): Leah Greenblatt gave Joy a "C-";  the following spring, X-Men: Apocalypse came out, and Chris Nashawaty gave it a "C"; most recently came Nashawaty's eviscerating and unfair "D+" review of Passengers.  (Fans' CinemaScores for all three films were much higher.)  Nashawaty has been particularly off-mark in pandering to his hipster/hater following, noting a "general expression of tedium creeping across the faces of Jennifer “Mystique” Lawrence and Michael “Magneto” Fassbender" in XM:A.  He was able to feed off of approval in the comments section (though he must have missed Director Brian Singer's observation that Mystique was supposed to be "world-weary" and a "reluctant heroine").  And EW's staff presents a united front: a week later, on EW's LA Daily radio show, Kyle Anderson shrieked that Lawrence's was the worst performance he had ever seen by a major star in a Marvel movie; more recently, Jessica Shaw on the EW morning show said that she likes Lawrence "more as a concept than as an actress," adding that Lawrence is a one-note performer; finally, in a recent issue of the magazine, the "Bullseye" section showed a poster of Lawrence's upcoming Mother! and having no knowledge of the film, placed it on the next to last outer ring (indicating a real misfire) with a sarcastic note that "Jennifer Lawrence is so relatable."

This amazing ability to tell whether or not a movie is good without the benefit of, you know, actually seeing it seems to be a special talent of Entertainment Weekly writers.  We have that same talent when it comes to predicting EW's film reviews.  For example, we know that Charlize Theron's upcoming film, Atomic Blonde, to be released on July 28, will receive a glowing review from EW.  How can we see the future so acutely?  Well, for the past two months, EW has been running its own public relations campaign for the film.  Sight unseen, it has already been on EW's Must List, Dalton Ross has called it the summer movie he is most anticipating, and several other glowing references have already been posted.  Even before all of that, we could have anticipated it because EW loves all things Charlize.  They gave the same treatment to Mad Max: Fury Road.  (Full disclosure: We love Charlize, too, but we wait until we make sure her movies are good before we start raving.)  So, look for an excellent review for Atomic Blonde next week from EW's staff of suck-ups--most likely the obsequious Nashawaty.  We know this for the same reason we knew that Passengers would be crucified a month before EW staff had a chance to see it, for the same reason we know that any Star Wars or Disney movie will automatically be extolled: EW plays favorites and, above all, its writers suck up to the haters and the cool kids because, at its core, that is where their souls are.  

Who do we trust?  A.O. Scott, Joel Siegel, David Edelstein, Manohla Dargis, Christie Lemire, Peter Travers, Leonard Maltin, and a few other established critics.  We trust Rolling Stone but not the Wall Street Journal--politics sway their reviews. 

And we like to reference the aforementioned Metacritic, the aggregate compilation of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).  No site is perfect, but Metacritic is picky about the movie reviewers it publishes; it converts their scores to percentages; it clearly delineates between positive, mixed, and negative reviews; it allows you to click on a reviewer's name and see his or her reviewing history; and, in most cases it allows you to click on individual reviews and read the entire text.  Over time, you will develop your own list of reviewers you trust.  To build your own circle of trust, I suggest you start with Metacritic:

And finally, it should be noted here that most film reviewers are males, and many of the less reputable show a strong misogynistic strain.  Let me assure you that FilmZ and I are in touch with our feminine side.  Also, we will tell you our biases up front.  Enjoy.

Baby Driver

Baby Driver

Edgar Wright's movies can earn a good rating but not necessarily be recommended to a friend.  That's not a bad thing.  We love Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, but we realize that generally speaking, they appeal to some sensibilities and not to others.  Once, after expressing our rapture over The Grand Budapest Hotel, a respected friend said it was one of the worst movies he had ever seen, so bad he was tempted to ask for his money back.  No Country for Old Men, in our opinion, is a masterpiece, but we have family members who hate it, all for their own reasons.

Wright's movies don't attract that kind of animosity; maybe it's because they are such good-natured fun and so visual.  The 43-year-old Brit wrote and directed the star-making Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), a paean to video gamers and among my children's all-time favorites.  He also wrote and directed the wonderful Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Cornetto comedies Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World's End (2013), and he wrote 2015's Ant-Man.   His films have been well-received by critics and wide swathes of the filmgoing public, and we have yet to hear anyone rate any of them lower than "It was all right."  And Baby Driver may be his most mainstream project to date.

We first meet Baby (Ansel Elgort) at his job, behind the wheel of a car, waiting curbside while his three partners are pulling off a broad-daylight heist.  While they do their job, Baby picks the perfect song for the moment on his iPod and goes into full-blown karaoke.  The robbers burst out of the doors and into the car, alarms blaring behind them.  The car doors close, and Baby exhibits his special talent: driver-savant, barreling through and around traffic with cops at every turn, a vehicular ballet set to the pulse-pounding strains of "Bellbottoms" blasting through his earbuds and to us.  The heist's mastermind is Doc (Kevin Spacey), a dangerous and deadpan boss who arranges the capers and switches up team members from job to job--except Baby, who is on every job, always the driver.

Baby, you see, crossed Doc once, but the gangster had a soft spot for the boy, allowing him to work off his debt in exchange for his life.  Outside of work, Baby doesn't have much of a life.  His only friend is a wheelchair-bound deaf-mute with whom Baby lives and communicates in sign language.  This is fine for the young driver because he has tinnitus--a permanent ringing in the ears brought on by a childhood accident.  He drowns it out with home-made playlists and mash-ups, piping them through his earbuds at ear-splitting levels.  One day, he meets Debora (Lily James), a sweet waitress at a throwback diner and he begins to envision a brighter future, one that includes the two of them riding off into the sunset.  As soon as his commitment to Doc ends.

Doc promises one more job, but there is that job.  The team we come to know best consists of Buddy (John Hamm) a scruffy Don Draper-type, or so we think until his psychopathology rolls out; Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Buddy's love--they have "His" and "Hers" neck tattoos to prove it; and Bats (Jamie Foxx), an aggressive psychotic who thinks there is something wrong with Baby because he rarely speaks, always wears sunglasses, and always listens to his music.  At one point, he listens to his iPod and drums his fingers while Doc explains the specifics of the heist.  Bats becomes incensed that the driver is paying no attention, to which Doc responds, "Baby?" and Baby perfectly reiterates Doc's instructions.  (Impressive lip reading, and when taken with his unexplained driving prowess it's unclear whether Wright wants us to believe that Baby has Asperger's syndrome.)  Buddy and Darling already share Doc's faith in Baby, but we're still not sure of Bats.  And what's left to wonder is whether Baby is still committed to the job.

The entire film moves to the rhythm of an eclectically terrific thirty-song soundtrack.  The plans, the heists, the escapes, all move to a choreographed beat of Baby's choice.  A scene where Baby dances through neighborhood is like a mashup of a Singing in the Rain Gene Kelly busting West Side Story moves, in which street drummers mimic the beat, wall murals match Baby's moves while he matches them right back, utility poles carry the lyrics we are hearing--this is Edgar Wright at his most visual and iconoclastic.  He was so inspired by Walter Hill's 1979 film The Driver that he named his own movie after it and even cast Hill in a cameo.  Some may compare this to the Fast and Furious movies, but where BD has style and invention, F&F relies on bombast, CGI, and green screen.  Baby Driver hearkens back to Bullitt, where real drivers drove real cars on real streets.  We also see a heavy dose of Tarantino in the dialogue, the interactions of the criminals, and in the violence that ratchets up to operatic levels in the second half of the film.

Wright's casting decisions and his choices of music bear much in common.  They are eclectic and for the most part, they perfectly integrate with his vision.  Two of the most interesting are John Hamm and Lily James.  Both cast against type: Hamm's typical debonair ad exec good nature now only a thin veneer over stubbled psychosis; James, the model of British Downton Abbey ladyship perfectly at home as an American country girl waitress.  The versatile Jamie Foxx inhabits the paranoid exposed nerve that is Bats and Kevin Spacey, toes the edge of parody as a humorously humorless cynic.  Both are charismatic and memorable.  Given those well-drawn characters, it's disappointing that Gonzalez is given little to do but be the gum-popping, gorgeous gun moll.  The most interesting choice among the major characters is, er, the major character.  We had our doubts about Elgort going in, thinking there had to be someone with more to offer as the title character, but he grew on us, and, in retrospect, he neatly fit the bill.  All in all, another very good effort by a writer-director whose films, for me, are can't miss experiences.

8.5 out of 10 on the Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (possibly in technical areas, director, original screenplay)

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