Baby Driver: Bad Title, Good Film…

Edgar Wright’s latest project is so good, it makes me overlook the ridiculous title…

I always look forward to Edgar Wright films, but after I heard the plot and title of Baby Driver, I admit I was a little sceptical. The idea of a young car prodigy called Baby, who suffered from tinnitus seemed just a little too weird to me, and I wasn’t a fan of the main actor, Ansel Elgort. I’d only seen him in bland teen dramas like the fault in our stars, and young adult dystopias like Divergent, and he didn’t stand out as particularly interesting. However, I finally saw it a week ago and I am pleased to say my scepticism was entirely misplaced. This film is an absolute blast from start to finish.

By far the best thing about this film is the sound design. Because Baby has tinnitus, he listens to music constantly to drown it out, which the audience can hear. Now, I’m not a music geek so I didn’t recognise a lot of the songs chosen, but for the most part I liked them and what amazed me was the way wright managed to sync up all the actions of the characters and the events of the film with the songs played. In fact, there is even a joke at one point in the film where Baby actually stops his team from carrying on with the heist until the right moment in his song. This is what makes this film unique, and it flavours every scene with an appropriate tone. I especially love the use of a song by Focus called Hocus Pocus (try saying that after you’ve had a few) which is one of the silliest and yet coolest I’ve heard.

The performances are for the most part, extremely well done. Two stand-outs for me were John Hamm and Lily James. John Hamm as Buddy is intense and dark, with a false smile and casual attitude that hides deep anger and resentment, reminiscent of his portrayal of Don Draper from Mad Men. In fact, you can make the argument that his character is really Don Draper, as Buddy comes from a similar background. On the other end of the scale, Lily James plays Deborah, the waitress love interest with a sweet innocence that never comes across as naivete. She has a natural sunny attitude and her relationship with Baby is heart-warming; the two have a good chemistry. She also isn’t played as a damsel, her character takes action into her own hands on more than one occasion, and she is willing to go far. As far as other actors go, Kevin Spacey is always great and although he’s not convincing as an unhinged killer, Jamie Foxx is intimidating as Bats.

Ansel Elgort, though not given much vocally to do, is nonetheless one hell of a physical performer, and scenes in which he dances to music are very charming. His expressions are very well done, and he manages to convey a feeling of cockiness without it seeming arrogant. Elgort can also portray moments of vulnerability and anger with an intensity that almost makes you forget his age, holding a stare with a deranged John Hamm at one point.

The visuals of the film, and the direction in general are exceptional as always with Edgar Wright. With bombastic action shot from very creative angles, and a superb use of lighting and colour to evoke the spirit of ridiculous 80’s action films. One of my favourite sequences is the chase scene in the multi car par, which uses brilliant cinematography, zooming in quickly on the two men in their cars, one lit in blue, the other red. Powerful stuff.

Baby Driver is a film I didn’t think I would enjoy as much as I did. The story is conventional, but the way in which it gets to each convention is surprising and refreshing. Like most of the best films, it takes what has been done before, and does something new with it. The direction, acting and music are splendid, and if I did have one complaint, it’s that the ending can’t help but feel a little anticlimactic. Overall though, I would definitely watch this again!

Making A Scene: The Spoils of War…

Breaking down a truly spectacular Battle…

I was hoping to write another movie review, but I haven’t had a chance to actually get out to the cinema, so none of the films I could review would be very recent. I have on the other hand been keeping up with the latest summer TV, in particular Game of Thrones. The latest episode The Spoils of War was a high point for the entire series and I thoroughly enjoyed the jaw dropping battle sequence. However, since I don’t want to spend forever writing long episode recaps about every episode in a season, I’ve come up with a new segment called “Making a scene” in which I will look at specific scenes from films and television episodes. And this week, I will be looking at the “Field of Fire” sequence from Game of Thrones Season 7 episode 4. As I’ll be talking about a scene from season 7 of Game of Thrones, be warned, there will be spoilers!

This episode has many amazing and well-crafted scenes. It may well be one of the best episodes the series has ever produced, and the gob-smacking ending is what captivated me most. To recap, after spending three episodes holding back, Daenerys Targaryen finally has enough and decides to attack the vulnerable Lannister army as they transport food and supplies to King’s Landing. Caught on the road unready for battle, the Lannisters are decimated by the horde of Dothraki screamers and literally burned to cinders by Drogon’s fire. By the end of the episode the entire army is routed and although Bronn manages to wound the dragon, the day definitely belongs to Daenerys.

The scene is masterfully directed and the director Matt Shakman should be extremely proud. His shots make the battle feel the way it does, and in terms of emotion, if not scale, I would say this sequence eclipses the Battle of the Bastards by miles. To be fair, it was always going to be hard to compete with a dragon. The camera-work is balanced between sweeping views of the action from up high as we fly with Drogon, to claustrophobic shaky cam and tracking shots, as we follow Jaime Lannister and Bronn through the fiery battlefield.

The tracking shots keep us close to the characters, allowing us to see the approaching army as they see it, and it is terrifying. The landscape shots of Drogon let us know what is happening and are immensely beautiful. Fans are calling this scene the Field of Fire after another battle from Westeros history. It’s easy to see why. The fire engulfs soldiers and explodes wagons, creating enough smoke to blot out the sun. the CG work with the dragon and the flames are extraordinary, especially for a TV show, and blend seamlessly with the live action. The practical makeup and props are also incredible, and the shots of men burning alive in agony are enough to make us wonder if Daenerys is really the good guy here!

The pace of the battle is quick and tension building. Rather than the slow slog of the Battle of the Bastards, where two armies pushed at each other until one gave way, this battle is decided fast. The pace keeps us from relaxing, creating tension, especially as we are unsure who to route for here. After all, both sets of characters are important to the viewer. All of this gives us a sense of dread as the Dothraki charge at us, and everything in this scene is tailored to increase that dread. From the moment we first hear the horde coming, we feel awestruck. The thunder of hooves, the eerie shriek of the Dothraki before we see them, and the roar of a dragon all feel bowel-loosening. The stunt work by the horsemen is sheer brilliance; the men stand on the back of the horse and shoot bows. Now we can see why many advise never to face the Dothraki in an open field.

There are many elements that can make part of a battle scene memorable, but rarely do all these elements come together so perfectly. Each aspect of the scene is honed to the highest standard, and I caught myself actually sitting on the edge of my seat as it went on. I can give Matt Shakman no greater praise than that this scene has affected me in a profound way, and it’ll be long while before I see anything so good again.

The Battle for Baker Street…

How I came to love one Sherlock Holmes series more than the other…

I’ll admit, when I first heard that CBS were developing an American version of the Sherlock Holmes story, I rolled my eyes along with everyone else. I thought this was nothing more than an attempt to cash in on the success of BBC’s Sherlock. At the time (2012) I was hooked on the second series, and I had little room in my heart for more than one modern Sherlock Holmes series at a time. To me, the casting of Lucy Liu as Watson seemed like an excuse to cast a big name, and even the attempt to set it in the USA seemed almost cultural appropriation.

Most of the time, if a UK show got any success the Americans didn’t bother exporting it, they just remade it. When I heard about Elementary, I sighed. There was no chance a 24-episode procedural written by Americans could capture the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, England’s most beloved fictional character. However, having watched all four series of Sherlock, I find my opinion towards the BBC show has cooled dramatically, and having watched the first season of Elementary, I’m shocked to find that I prefer the American version.

Let me explain. There are several major problems with Sherlock, which started out as minor annoyances, but have grown into huge flaws which I believe damage the show irreparably. When I watched the first season of Elementary, I was delighted to find that it avoids many of the issues that plague Sherlock, and so I’ll go through five of them now with you:

 

  1. The Pacing…

Let’s start with the basics; Elementary is a better paced show. One thing that always frustrated me about Sherlock was the abysmal series length. I understand that making something short of better quality is preferable to a deluge of mediocrity, but Sherlock goes too far in my opinion. Three episodes is not enough for a series. Sure, the episodes are almost feature length, but when watching a series, we treat it like television, not a film, so the length often hurts the overall pacing, as in the second episode of the fourth series of Sherlock. Far too much time is dedicated to visualising the drug addled mind of the main character, and this drags after ten minutes. The series often feels like it’s padding the run-time with weddings and awkward humour, rather than plot or character development. Elementary keeps to forty minutes and tells a coherent standalone mystery with satisfying character development that builds over the season, such as Watson’s budding detective skills. This feels a lot smoother and easier to consume than hour-and-a-half testaments to how amazing Sherlock is.

  1. Character…

Another bug-bear of Sherlock that has got worse is the way the show handles character development. The first series was effective at establishing that Watson is Sherlock’s emotional centre and that Sherlock was an arrogant and distant intellect with heart somewhere near the right place. Fast forward four series and Watson has no personality beyond being angry at Sherlock or admiring him, and the man himself has changed from a clever man making simple deductions to an all-powerful genius with no weaknesses whatsoever. Might as well change his name to Mary.

What Elementary achieves with its characters is more rewarding. We start the first season with a recovering drug addict trying to keep his sobriety counsellor at arm’s length, and he naturally develops into a warm friend with genuine respect for his partner, who has become a fledgling detective, rather than an ex-surgeon who hates her job. Elementary takes the time to slowly hand us information about these people and why they do what they do, rather than throw everything at us in the first series, having nothing left by the fourth.

  1. Diversity…

Many people, myself included have found a troubling trend in the way Stephen Moffat writes female characters. They are always some form of sexy femme-fatale who are (despite pretentions of independence) obsessed with the male protagonist. Irene Adler is a dominatrix who undresses to distract Sherlock. The line “the woman who beat you” rather than being a clever woman who outsmarts him is twisted into the woman who hit you a bunch with a whip. Very modern. Honestly, the biggest problem I have is that the show tries to act as if it’s all cool with diversity, but it can’t help but draw attention to it.

Elementary endured quite a lot of controversy over the decision to cast Watson as a woman. However, the way the character is written takes elements of the book version of Watson, and adds something new. Watson earns Holmes’ respect and her compassion and determination make her a staunch friend. There is a range of skin tones on display and even a transgender Mrs Hudson. None of these things are focused on or put in a spotlight. It is breathtakingly refreshing to watch a show where diversity is treated as normal.

  1. Priorities…

For a detective show that aims to give us a mystery drama, Sherlock is very uninterested in telling a mystery story. Past the first two episodes, most of Holmes and Watson’s cases are given to us in montages, or exposition, while the focus is on how all of this affects Sherlock. In the premiere to series three, we are never even given a proper explanation of how Sherlock survives his apparent death, after two years of speculation. In fact, Watson specifically interrupts Sherlock’s explanation to tell him that he doesn’t care how he did it. Good for you John, but could you humour for a moment the viewers you were supposed to be entertaining?

Robert Doherty, creator of Elementary keeps true to the original stand-alone nature of the Holmes stories by using the procedural format, arguably the successor to that style of narrative. As such each episode may contain more clues to a larger mystery at some point, but the focus of the episode is always on giving us a satisfying mystery to solve. The details of the case that Sherlock picks out are there to be noticed and so viewers are not cheated, unlike when Sherlock (from Sherlock) comes up with information not privy to the viewer.

  1. Sherlock and Watson…

The heart of the story is always the relationship between Holmes and his sidekick. Even in the books, it’s never been an entirely equal friendship, and in most adaptations, Watson has been portrayed as rather an idiot. A comic foil to highlight Holmes’ genius, and in Sherlock it is no different. Apart from one or two isolated moments, Watson makes no impact on the plot. He is there for exactly two things; to react to Sherlock and to be rescued. Sherlock constantly belittles and insults him, and only starts to outwardly reciprocate their friendship at all three series in. it’s tired and cliché and more than a little boring. Elementary does things a little different. Apart from the obvious gender swap, Watson starts as a sober companion, so it is literally her job to care about Holmes, which leads very naturally to her coming to befriend him on her own terms. Whereas is Sherlock, Holmes ropes John into a flat-share on a whim, Joan enters Sherlock’s world with her own agenda. In short, the Holmes and Watson of Sherlock are like Pinky and the Brain, whereas Sherlock and Joan remind me of Mulder and Scully.

There are many reasons I’ve grown to dislike Sherlock, and if you still think it’s a good show after this, then that’s fine! I’m not trying to ruin a show you like, but if anything I’ve said about Elementary sounds refreshing, please give it a watch, it’s worth your time.

Wonder Woman, The first good DC film…

Wonder Woman finally solves the DC problem.

I’m clearly a little late to the discussion here, after all, as I write this, Wonder Woman is not even in cinemas anymore, and everyone and their mother has already raved about the brilliance of this film. But they aren’t me, so I don’t care. On with the review.

DC has for a while now, been struggling to replicate the success of Marvel Studios. Certainly, their films are commercial hits, but until now, their output has been met with incredibly mixed receptions. It reminds me of when I was six and would pretend to be playing in my church’s band to emulate my Dad. As the drummer tapped away I would try to mimic him using pencils and some upturned paint pots. DC has lacked the patience or the right motivation to do the source material justice.

In short, DC only started their shared universe to ape Marvel and share in their success. So most of the films made at their core have been trying desperately to set up the new DCU, to the extent that they fail to put entertainment first. Wonder Woman is the first DC film that tells a coherent story, and despite a few references to Bruce Wayne, the film isn’t bogged down in connections to the wider DCU and future sequel bait.

The film isn’t perfect, the story is a rather generic hero’s journey, and the action is standard, and yet there is something surprisingly fresh about Wonder Woman. Perhaps it is the way the film avoids cliché, by looking at things from a new angle. It is a tale about a naïve hero joining a world war, which draws obvious comparisons to Captain America. However, by setting the film in the 1st World War, Patty Jenkins allows the themes to become apparent.

Diana has a simple view of the world; there is good and evil, and good needs to destroy evil. She spends most of the film thinking that if she kills Ares, all war will end, forgetting that Ares is not the cause of all war, but the embodiment of it. By putting her in a war where no side is outright evil, and the reason for it starting in the first place is complicated, we can see her come to terms with the more complex morality of the world of men. It also helps to separate the film from the events of the rest of the DCU, and keeps the focus on Diana’s story, which even Man of Steel struggled with.

At its core that is what makes Wonder Woman feel so fresh, it is a standalone film. If Marvel has a major flaw which DC should exploit, it’s that they can’t resist slipping in a lot of references, Easter eggs and hints towards future films, and this can be at the expense of the story they are trying to tell. Wonder Woman is the story of Diana joining the war, and her desire to save people. This is what drives her throughout the film; not revenge, not fighting other superheroes, saving people.

It never ceases to amaze me how many superhero stories involve half a city being destroyed, usually with hundreds of civilian casualties. Heroes disregard actual crime fighting as they battle cosmic entities, and this has its place, but Wonder Woman manages to do both. She fights a literal god, and on the way, saves French civilians from trench warfare, not for any other reason than that she wants to help, mirroring Trevor Noah’s reason for joining the war. Gal Gadot brings a wide eyed innocence, and yet battle-hardened confidence to the character which fits the tone, and never seems gullible.

That is what I love about Wonder Woman, that along with some stellar film-making and brilliant performances, Patty Jenkins has something genuinely new and interesting to offer, and she doesn’t feel bound by the failing DC formula. There are strong themes, decent story-telling and interesting, human characters. What more can you ask for?

Getting started…

Why am a starting a blog? I know that there are millions of blogs out there, and so many of them already talk about films. I also know that I’ll need a tonne of exposure and hopefully some hard work to get this blog seen, but I feel like sharing my opinions with people, and practicing writing is worth it in the long run. Even if hardly anyone reads this, it’ll be time well spent.

So, what sort of things am I going to look at on this blog? The short answer is whatever I want, but I definitely want to focus on cinema. As such the most common posts will be film reviews, and maybe some general opinions about the film industry. I hope you’ll enjoy what I have to say, and I hope you don’t get too offended if I say I hate a movie you like!

‘Till next time…