While the summer would-be blockbusters have been a little disappointing so far (with the notable exception of Wonder Woman), with derivative sequels to other derivative sequels (I’m thinking the latest and hopefully last Transformers), as well as lackluster attempts to create the latest franchise (you know I’m referring to The Mummy), there is reason for hope, and perhaps even celebration. If you’re looking for a fast-paced crime caper with terrific car chases (free of CGI), bracing humor, some unexpected plot turns (as well as the expected), sharp performances from engaging leads and a sterling supporting cast, and a killer soundtrack, then you really should speed to your neighborhood bijou for Baby Driver. It’s the latest effort from writer/director Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead fame), and though he’s had it in the works for a while, the finished product is worth the wait.
Baby Driver showcases Ansel Elgort as Baby, the indentured and supremely skilled getaway driver for Kevin Spacey’s band of thieves. While Spacey’s commanding crime boss never uses the same crew twice—the gang is made up of rotating robbers including Jon Hamm and Elsa Gonzalez as a hot-for-each-other married couple, and Jaime Foxx as a most volatile and violent killer—Elgort’s Baby is Spacey’s consistent good luck charm. We see why in the dazzling opening sequence, with Baby in control as he and the gang elude what seems like an army of police, all in time to “Bellbottoms” from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (one of the many memorable songs on the soundtrack, courtesy of a plot element that has Baby nearly always listening to music as a way to quell his tinnitus, which he acquired…well, you’ll find out). It’s a chase that impresses without being overblown—or unbelievable.
As the plot proceeds, there is more of Baby’s backstory, including his tender relationship with his deaf foster father (CJ Jones)—but mainly the film centers on how Baby wants to retire and run off with Debora (Lily Smalls), his kindred spirit, a lovely young waitress) whose only jealousy of Baby is how many songs share his name. However, Spacey’s leader needs Baby for one more heist (when will gang leaders learn to stop planning that one last heist and quit when they’re ahead), so a reluctant Baby, who thought he was out, is now pulled back in.
There is so much here to enjoy in Baby Driver, from the clever scripting to the action setpieces to the uniformly fine performances.
Spacey is both chilling and charming, Elgort and James are very appealing leads that you’ll wind up rooting for, and Foxx and Hamm are very effective as the most prominent gang members, with Hamm attacking his role with particular relish, especially in the section detailing the final heist—and its aftermath. I would say the film could be your next guilty pleasure—but it’s too good for that. Check it out before it’s devoured at the multiplex by the next onslaught of sequels and bombast.
Another film that might be worth your time is Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a remake of the Clint Eastwood/Don Siegel collaboration that disappointed at the box office (and led to Eastwood severing his ties with Universal Pictures). In the Civil War-set original, Eastwood’s injured Union soldier is found by one of the girls in an isolated Southern finishing school run by Geraldine Page—while convalescing, he proceeds to engage the attentions of the various young (and younger) ladies, liberating in them all kinds of pent-up emotions—while the war is conducted in the distance.
The remake covers much of the same ground as Colin Farrell’s soldier is taken in by the ladies (led by headmistress Nicole Kidman and her young charges including Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning). The cannon fire provides a constant accompaniment, but the soldiers and the outside world are fairly unobtrusive; Coppola’s concern is on the changing, complex relations between the charming, resourceful soldier who decide to make the best of his situation (as in endearing himself to the ladies), and the residents of the school (including Kidman) who are both thrown by this virile man’s presence—and are losing the battle between keeping their distance and allowing themselves to be drawn in. The Beguiled, though deliberately paced, is engrossing throughout, and when the passions come to a boil--even these are developed in a restrained, almost detached manner. The performances are all good, with Kidman and Dunst sharing top honors, convincingly conveying repression, isolation, and a barely disguised yearning—in a drama where the war with the most devastating consequence is the one played inside the school’s gates.
While I did enjoy The Beguiled, I do have one or two caveats—and you may wish to seek out the original to form your own conclusions. One is the absence (in the remake) of the black servant whom Eastwood’s bedridden character attempts to engage by suggesting to her that they’re both slaves; Coppola had her reasons, I’m sure, for leaving this character out, but she played a vital role in the original. The other is that the new version is almost too genteel in depicting some of the more unsavory aspects of the story—there is nothing as disturbing in this version as in the original, when Eastwood’s wounded character plants a long kiss on the lips of a fourteen-year old Pamelyn Ferdin, establishing at once that Eastwood’s character is a little less than he seems. (For his part, Farrell’s soldier is much more likable and sincere than Eastwood’s). In any case, I encourage you to seek both out—as they are products of different times and different minds—but compelling nonetheless.
Finally, in an unabashed plug for my book Dan Duryea – Heel With a Heart, I do invite anyone within reach of Santa Monica to come to the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre on Thursday July 20 at 7:30, when the Aero will present a double feature of two of Duryea’s best films, Criss Cross and Black Angel. I’ll be on hand for a chat between films with film historian Alan Rode and Richard Duryea, Duryea’s son. I’ll also be signing copies of the book, but even if you’re not planning to buy, please come and say hello.