BABY DRIVER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language throughout

Directed by: Edgar Wright

Written by: Edgar Wright

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm & Jamie Foxx

Since the mid-90s, director/writer Edgar Wright has been imagining BABY DRIVER. This action flick would serve as a passion project for years as he fine-tuned every detail and constructed the plot. In 2017, BABY DRIVER has finally arrived! There’s no other way of putting it: BABY DRIVER is awesome! The blend of music, action, and relentless storytelling that is lovingly placed into every scene, fleshed-out character, and carefully placed song is a wonder to behold. BABY DRIVER has cemented its place as one of my favorite action films and I guarantee that this will go down as a celebrated classic or (at the very least) gain a passionate cult following.

Young tinnitus-stricken getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) has spent years repaying a substantial debt to mob boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), all while blasting tunes to keep his “hum in the drum” at bay. With his affairs finally caught up, Baby believes that he’s out of the crime-filled lifestyle for good and begins to go legitimate. To further boost Baby’s upbeat look on life, he’s found a loving relationship with waitress Debora (Lily James). Unfortunately for Baby, Doc comes calling and the driver finds himself stuck in a heist that has unexpected, potentially deadly curveballs. As Baby attempts to escape his life and runaway with his girlfriend, bullets fly, engines rev, and music blares. It’s a cinema lover’s dream and will surely please loads of action fans.

Edgar Wright directs the hell out of this film with attention to detail in every frame and a style that perfectly feeds into the fast-paced storytelling. The soundtrack blares, blasts, and plays through the entire movie, making the music an essential ingredient to this adrenaline-pumping cinematic recipe. When Wright occasionally removes the music as certain characters threaten Baby or he drops an iPod in the middle of a chase, tension immediately erupts as the music (and its absence) takes the viewer into reluctant criminal’s head and lets us experience the world as he does. The action choreography and flow of scenes to the music is perfectly matched up, making for one hell of a thrilling, funny, and thoroughly entertaining ride.

To boot, BABY DRIVER’s action sequences are stellar. The car chases will have the viewer hooked as Baby pulls off insane moves and proves himself to be “Mozart in a go-kart.” I’m sure that certain moments were undoubtedly aided by computer generated effects, but these all appeared practical and it wouldn’t surprise me to find that BABY DRIVER had an insane stunt team of adrenaline-junkies who wanted to aid Wright’s action-packed art. The gun fights and heist sequences also have emotional stakes thrown into them as little details come back in big ways. Even when the film integrates well-worn action clichés (you can see certain plot points coming), it does so in a loving manner that fully embraces the genre as opposed to merely using them as lazy developments.

As the titular getaway driver, Ansel Elgort delivers the best performance of his career yet…turning Baby into a charming Steve McQueen type action hero and instantly winning the viewer over. Lily James has fantastic chemistry as Baby’s newfound girlfriend and their relationship seems totally natural on the big screen. As far as villains go, Kevin Spacey brings his usual high-caliber acting as an intimidating mobster who has a sense of humor and a genuine connection towards Baby. Meanwhile, Jamie Foxx is scary as the stone-cold psycho of the bunch. Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez are perfect as a Bonnie and Clyde pair, who are likable in moments and threatening in later scenes as their dark sides come out. It’s also worth noting that Jon Bernthal, Flea (from Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Lanny Joon are all very fun to watch as side thugs who only receive a few minutes of screen time.

To put it simply, BABY DRIVER is an action movie lover’s dream come true and also serves as an adrenaline-pumping masterpiece for cinephiles everywhere. It’s a film that weaves excitement, romance, comedy, and a quasi-musical score into the space of two glorious hours. Edgar Wright’s passion for this project comes through in every second of screen time and you’ll likely be listening to the soundtrack on repeat for days after sitting through this film. I’m gushing over BABY DRIVER, but it really is that amazing. BABY DRIVER is one of 2017’s best movies so far, it might be Edgar Wright’s best film (in a filmography that’s loaded with tough competition), and it’s easily one of the best action pictures that I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting through. See it!

Grade: A+

BURNT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout

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Directed by: John Wells

Written by: Steven Knight

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Bruhl, Matthew Rhys, Alicia Vikander, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson & Lily James

The Weinstein Company (notorious Oscar whores that they are) flaunted BURNT as a potential awards season offering before reviews were even in. Despite the heavy pre-release hype (opening in select theaters before expanding onto screens nationwide), showcasing many talented performers, and following a screenplay by Steven Knight (who recently impressed with LOCKE), BURNT is a half-baked melodrama that tastes a bit bland (pardon the obvious cooking puns). The film may be technically well-made (shot on location in London and using an almost Kubrickian shooting style) with a number of strong performances, but it crumbles under the weight of cheesy clichés and a generically by-the-numbers plot.

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Meet Adam Jones. He’s a former chef turned coked-up bad boy turned professional chef again. After running a pristine French restaurant into the ground, Adam Jones sentences himself to three years of shucking oysters before returning to London in hopes of adding a third Michelin star to his reputation. This is easier said than done as Adam finds himself beset by many obstacles. One of which is securing a venue, then there’s the process of employing a talented staff who are willing to follow his lead and tolerate his fiery temper. Finally, he must concoct a menu that equates the level of a culinary orgasm. Adam will face his demons, open himself up to others, and accept his faults…or fail horribly in the process.

UNTITLED JOHN WELLS PROJECT

The best thing in BURNT is front and center on its poster: Bradley Cooper. Cooper has proven himself as a performer who can make even the most menial of characters into someone interesting. The role of culinary bad boy Adam Jones is no different. Adam Jones commands the screen with an authority that echoes of a young Gordon Ramsay, someone who clearly served as a real-life inspiration for this protagonist. Bradley Cooper’s performance is easily the best thing to be found in this film…well, that and lots of plates of gorgeous food. There are many shots of delicious looking dishes that will make your stomach growl. It’s probably not the best idea to watch this movie when you’re hungry.

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The supporting cast members don’t necessarily pale in comparison to Cooper’s dominating presence though as we get Sienna Miller as a frustrated mother/cook who also doubles as a potential love-interest for Cooper. As Cooper’s former friend turned co-worker, Daniel Bruhl is totally enjoyable and is doing his damndest to bring believable emotion to his scenes. Special mention should also be made towards Matthew Rhys as a rival three-star chef who adds more flavor into the mix. The chemistry between Cooper’s and Rhys’s characters is genuinely fun to watch as they both hate each other in an almost friendly way. Also on the sidelines are: Omar Sy (as a former enemy turned co-chef), Alicia Vikander (as a familiar face from Adam’s past), and Emma Thompson (as Adam’s frequently glimpsed therapist).

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The performances are definitely not the problem in BURNT. Instead the film’s big flaws primarily stem from a weak script. There’s plenty of interesting drama to be found in real-life kitchens. Just stick on any one of Gordon Ramsay’s reality shows and you’re bound to be hooked for at least one episode. Some of that drama and suspense translates into the plot as Adam desperately tries to earn a third star to his name and strives for constant perfection (a goal that doesn’t seem realistic). It would be nice if the script didn’t sweep Adam’s mistakes under the rug with haphazard explanations, vague exposition-filled conversations, and silly coincidences. After all, it seems like the film’s overall message is to face one’s demons and accept ourselves as imperfect creatures. The screenplay frequently undermines itself with frequent predictable plot developments and unbelievable clichés (to go into specifics would be delving into spoiler territory). BURNT’s script isn’t up to the level of its performances and that’s a noticeable (often distracting) problem.

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You can pretty much guess where BURNT is heading from the moment it starts and there’s nothing to keep the viewer hooked other than strong acting and food that will make you wish that you were eating instead of watching this film. Though the cast is great (especially the performances from Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl, and Matthew Rhys), they can only do so much with a script that frequently drags its feet and doesn’t reward the viewer for sticking through it. BURNT’s title is rather ironic, because the film is disappointingly undercooked.

Grade: C

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Zombie Violence and Action, and brief Suggestive Material

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Directed by: Burr Steers

Written by: Burr Steers

(based on the novel PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith)

Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance & Lena Headey

Jane Austen’s acclaimed classic gets an undead, ass-kicking twist in this straight-faced spoof. Based on a parody novel in which Seth Grahame-Smith inserted zombies and martial arts into a beloved romance, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES might be the perfect date movie of 2016. There are zombies and combat scenes for the guys, and a comedy of manners and old-fashioned romance for the gals. This is all executed in a stylish way that kept my eyes glued to the screen from start to finish. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is the kind of film that you simply have to see in order to believe that it actually exists.

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A zombie apocalypse has broken loose in pre-Victorian England. Families now live in fortified homes and train their children in the ways of the orient (Chinese and Japanese fighting styles). Little matters like hordes of flesh-eating monsters and daily bloodshed won’t keep wealthy families from trying to marry off their children though. Elizabeth Bennet is a cynical young woman who doesn’t believe in love until she meets the inscrutable Colonel Darcy. While her four other sisters find love in various places, the sword-wielding Elizabeth is given a variety of suitors and begins to develop a complicated relationship with the zombie-slaying Darcy. All of this is set to the backdrop of a humans vs. zombies war raging in London.

Sam Riley;Douglas Booth

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES gets credit where credit is due in being (mostly) faithful to the original Austen novel…just with added explosions, fights, and brain-eating ghouls thrown into the mix. One can’t help but admire how seriously this film takes itself as even the silliest moments are played out with a straight face. Director/writer Burr Steers manages to execute his zombie-filled version of Austen’s classic in a stylish manner that makes the film entertaining to watch the whole way through, even in the zombie-free scenes. A prologue near the beginning is pulled off in a ridiculous, yet very cool, way that made me realize that I was in for quite a ride.

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The self-serious (and equally hilarious) tone of ZOMBIES is aided by the performances of a talented cast. Lily James takes a break from her family-friendly and typically British fare to kick ass and fall in love as Elizabeth. This zombie-slaying version of the literary character rightfully seems up to snuff in her distinctly Austen sophisticated manner, but also joins the ever-growing list of strong female heroines in recent years. Sam Riley is equally entertaining as the sullen, but likable Darcy. Darcy’s introduction is a stand-out moment and he remains a compelling character as both a romantic interest and professional zombie killer. Elizabeth’s sisters receive substantially less screen time (after all, this movie could only be so long), but Bella Heathcote is great in her own romantic subplot as Jane.

Lily James;Bella Heathcote

Two GAME OF THRONES alumni pop up in brief side roles. Charles Dance is occasionally glimpsed as the Bennet sisters’ good-humored father, while Lena Headey is appropriately intimidating as the one-eyed Lady Catherine. Jack Huston is great as the mysterious Mr. Wickham, Elizabeth’s rival love interest with unique theories about how to end the zombie apocalypse. Meanwhile, Matt Smith’s Mr. Collins is easily the funniest part of the entire film. His comedic timing and quirky line delivery are pitch perfect.

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Though it’s only rated PG-13, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES gets away with a lot. All of the fight and combat scenes are impressively choreographed. The deceptive teenage-oriented rating still allows room for exploding zombie heads, severed limbs, and other bits of gore. The make-up work on these zombies ranges from creepy to over-the-top (in a good way). Aside from the onslaught of sword-fighting, martial arts, and undead corpses, Austen fans will be glad to hear that the film remains a romance through and through. Lines of dialogue have been tailored to include words like: zombies, undead, arts of the orient, and combat. However, they don’t feel as out-of-place as you might think they would be.

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My only complaint (and it’s a noticeable one) with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is that the screenplay includes vague bits of a subplot involving the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that seems entirely useless to the film as a whole. The only reason that I can think of for its inclusion was to set up for possible sequels (which is also evidenced by a mid-credits scene). This is my sole gripe with an otherwise surprisingly solid film. This zombified take on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is entertaining as hell and all the better for it. Austen’s beloved romance remains fully intact and we still get to see zombies being slain by classic literary characters. What more could you want from a movie like this?

Grade: B+

CINDERELLA (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for mild Thematic Elements

Cinderella poster

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Chris Weitz

Starring: Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgard, Derek Jacobi, Holliday Grainger & Sophie McShera

With the technological wonders and impressive effects that exist behind the camera these days, Disney has taken on a movement to reinvent their animated classics into live-action films. With a dark take on Sleeping Beauty of the way in MALEFICENT, their next animated classic to be transformed is CINDERELLA. Seeing as the folk tale of Cinderella has been around for centuries and spread worldwide, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t have a clue about the general plot of this movie. In a lot of ways, the 1950 animated version has major shortcomings and they are fixed up in Kenneth Branagh’s take on this fairy tale that’s equally aimed for adults as it is for children (though some might argue it’s made more for adults).

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Ella is a genuinely good person who’s been struck with tragic circumstances. Both of her parents are dead and she’s been saddled with the role of being a servant for her wicked stepmother and cruel stepsisters. Life isn’t going well and that doesn’t look to be changing any time soon. To add insult to injury, she’s recently been renamed Cinderella. Cinder Ella, get it? She had ashes on her face and they won’t let her live it down. While on a stroll through the woods, Cinderella meets the handsome Prince Kit who immediate takes a liking to her. Through some magic and kindness, Cinderella might yet get out of her bad situation and wind up with her true love. You know this story. Why am I giving you the premise? It’s probably for that one person who’s somehow never heard of/completely forgotten this fairy tale. Rest assured, this live action take on CINDERELLA is a great experience that we’ve come to expect from Disney.

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To those who might be worried that this version of CINDERELLA deviates or puts a spin on their beloved fairy tale, you can rest at ease. There are minimal additions to this well-known, crowd-pleasing story. The character of Cinderella is appropriately lovable and the viewer isn’t forced into feeling false sympathy for her out of obligation. I genuinely cared about Cinderella, played by a remarkable Lily James, and felt like cheering when life was looking up for her. Cate Blanchett plays the evil stepmother as a wickedly manipulative and hate-filled person almost to the point where female viewers will probably feel like leaping through the screen to give this villainess a slap across the face. The wicked stepsisters aren’t allowed too much room to develop and mainly serve as comic relief that mostly works. The prince is also given a personality this time around, which was sorely lacking in the 1950 animated version. Played by Richard Madden, Kit is actually a fleshed-out prince who gets lines, scenes and character development. Gasp!

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Though it has solid acting across the board from almost everybody (including Stellan Skarsgard as the corrupt Grand Duke), Helena Bonham Carter sticks out like a sore thumb. She’s just plain annoying as the fairy godmother and goes too far over-the-top. Her scenes seem like they’re from a completely different film and her comic relief is poorly executed. The whole sequence in which mice turn into horses and a pumpkin turns into a carriage would have been stunning if Bonham Carter hadn’t been mugging for the camera the entire time. There’s also unnecessary narration that can be a bit much (which was also a problem that I had with MALEFICENT), but doesn’t detract too much from the film.

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The production design is absolutely stunning. It’s very apparent that love, care and attention to the most minute of details was put into the making of this film. The costumes are gorgeous. The sets are elegant. The music is beautiful and enchanting. There’s actually a fleshed-out, believable romance between Cinderella and Prince Kit that feels more genuine than the usual Disney fairy tale. That’s exactly how this movie feels too, like a fairy tale come to life in cinematic form. This is also aided by a just under two-hour running time moving at a perfect pace that will leave you wondering where the time went.

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CINDERELLA should entertain both adults and children in equal measure, though I have a feeling that more adults are going to appreciate the serious treatment than kids (who will enjoy the antics of the mice, Helena Bonham Carter’s annoying godmother, and the simple story). Though there is a distinct sequence that would have been fantastic without the addition of one-liners and over-the-top humor, CINDERELLA is a cinematically mature take on a well-known fairy tale. It’s as if Kenneth Branagh has lensed his Shakespearean style of filmmaking to this live-action Disney film and it pays off in spades. CINDERELLA is a magical romance that will delight all ages.

Grade: B+

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