Driven to Succeed

2015 should have been a great year for Edgar Wright. He’d first made his name in British TV, including “Spaced,” a series starring Simon Pegg that was a wildly inventive comedy. Switching to film, he created the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy with Pegg and Nick Frost: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. Then he got the chance to write and direct Marvel’s Ant-Man, a dream project for Wright that he’d pushed to do for a decade. It would have been a major breakthrough into Hollywood, but “creative differences” led to Marvel replacing him at the start of filming. (He did get story and screenplay credits, but he’s said he’ll never watch the film.) Some people could be broken by the experience. Instead Wright has come back with his best picture ever, and my favorite film of the summer that doesn’t star Gal Gadot. Baby Driver takes the classic crime drama and gives it a nitro-injection that puts it into a new class.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver par excelance. Atlanta crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) puts together different crews for different capers, but he always uses Baby to drive, almost as a good luck charm. The opening sequence underlines his prowess with a hi-octane race through the streets of Atlanta after a bank robbery executed by Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal).

A car accident when he was a child killed his beloved mother and abusive father, and left him with tinnitus that he plays music to cover. Baby lives with his adoptive father, Joseph (C.J. Jones), a wheel-chair bound deaf-mute who doesn’t approve of Baby’s work with Doc. Then Baby meets Debora (Lily James), a waitress in a coffee shop, and falls hard for her. He has one more job to do to settle a debt with Doc, and then he dreams of getting away with Debora. But getting out isn’t that easy.

As usual, Wright both directed and wrote the original script, and it retains his trademark comedy flair. A robber is told to get Michael Myers/Halloween masks and instead gets Mike Myers Halloween masks. Later, Baby takes Doc’s 8-year-old nephew along while casing a robbery target, and the kid proves better at the job than Baby. He also has a tracking shot during the opening credits that would have made Orson Welles envious (something he’d also done at the beginning of Shaun of the Dead). But in Baby Driver they’re pace points to give the audience a chance to breathe. When Baby’s behind the wheel, that chance is gone. Wright went old school with the action sequences, eschewing green screen and actually choreographing the chases with stunt drivers. You can practically smell the burnt rubber.

While shot mostly in the brilliant sunlight of Atlanta, Baby Driver has the DNA of film noir. Wright creates serious tension with Spacey’s and Hamm’s characters, as well as a lethal Jamie Foxx who comes in midway through the film. It gives a sharper contrast to Baby, who is bothered if anyone is harmed in the course of the capers.

Elgort made a name for himself with YA movies (The Divergent series, The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns) but here he graduates to an adult, action role and handles it beautifully. Lily James was luminous in Cinderella. In this film she oozes southern charm, even though the south that she’s from is Southern England. Hamm, Spacey, and Foxx have a field day with their roles, especially Hamm, though a wonderful discovery is Eiza Gonzalez. Her Darling is a bonny Bonnie to Hamm’s Clyde, and she matches the others in lethal intensity.

Wright has crafted an awesome soundtrack for the movie, blending T. Rex, Queen, and Beck with Martha and the Vandellas, Golden Earing, and Barry White. It underpins the movie, and at times even adds commentary to the action. The credits feature Simon and Garfunkel with their eponymously titled “Baby Driver” off of the “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” album.

A phrase often tossed about in the face of adversity is “Don’t get mad, get even.” After the experience on Ant-Man, Wright didn’t just get even, he excelled. If you like action, but wish it could be handled in an inventive, fresh way, with deep and interesting characters, this is the movie for you.

Okay

In the voiceover narration at the beginning of The Fault In Our Stars, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) explains there are two ways to tell her story. One is the sugar-coated version, where everything can be worked out by playing a Peter Gabriel song, and the other is the messy truth. There isn’t a single Peter Gabriel song in this movie’s soundtrack, but there is plenty of messy truth.

Hazel has been living with cancer for years, and almost died when she a pre-teen. A drug trial miraculously extended her life, but she knows that she is terminal. An oxygen tank to support her compromised lungs is Hazel’s constant companion, and minor exertions can wipe her out. Her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) worries that she’s depressed because she keeps reading the same book, “An Imperial Affliction” by Peter Van Houten. To Hazel, the book is simply the one novel that treats cancer honestly. At the behest of Frannie and her father, Michael (Sam Trammell), Hazel attends a cancer support group for teens and twenty-somethings.

Hazel isn’t impressed with the group, but then she runs into (physically) Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort). Augustus is a cancer survivor who lost one of his legs to the disease. His cancer’s in remission; he’s come to the group to support his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) who’s lost one eye already and is facing upcoming surgery that will take the other one. Augustus faces life with a joie de vive that is the polar opposite of Hazel’s realism, but they both feel the attraction between them. Hazel gives him a copy of “An Imperial Affliction” to read and, seeing her love of the book, he offers to give her a special gift.

 

If you haven’t read the book, you might think you know where the movie is going after the above two paragraphs. Instead it keeps veering off into messy truth. John Green’s book became a bestseller because it’s not the sentimental Pablum we’ve seen before, such as in the disease-of-the-week movies on television.

Director Josh Boone had only made one feature before doing Fault, but he handles the cast and story beautifully. The novel was adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who wrote the exceptional (500) Days of Summer and also adapted last year’s The Spectacular Now (which also starred Woodley). It was a help that Green was on the set for most of the shoot, ready to give input as needed.

This is a movie that sits on the shoulders of its two leads. The good news is that both Woodley and Elgort are up to the task, giving luminous performances. While they played siblings in Divergent earlier this year, there’s a definite chemistry between the two of them on film. Woodley demonstrated her strength three years ago by going toe-to-toe with George Clooney in The Descendants and holding her own. It’s a pleasure watching her embody Hazel. Elgort hasn’t as large a body of work as Woodley; his first movie was last year’s remake of Carrie, in which he was about the only improvement on the original film. He is an actor to watch in the years to come.

Laura Dern is excellent as Frannie, a mother who’s not only dealing with a teenager but also is aware she could lose her daughter at any time. Willem Dafoe and Lotte Verbeek have small but pivotal roles as author Peter Van Houten and his wife Lidewij. Special kudos to Nat Wolff; it’s delightful to see him get a shattering form of revenge (you might say) on a girl who dumps him because of his illness.

While this is a raw, emotionally wrenching movie, do not ignore it because the subject matter appears to be a “downer.” It mines a deep and rich vein of humor of the gray rather than black variety. It is also a powerful, life-affirming story that, while it falls into the Young Adult genre, speaks to truths that are universal and ageless. All generations will revel in the power of this movie. See it.