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.


Big Laughs, Big Thrills

I never was a fan of Ant-Man when I was a kid. My earliest favorite comic book was The Fantastic Four – I started reading them with the first issue – and I enjoyed Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and the others from the 1960s. But the idea of a miniscule superhero wasn’t big enough to capture my interest, so I ignored him. Thus I was a skeptic about how it would play as a movie. After seeing Ant-Man at an early showing last night, I’m happy to report the film is one of the best movies to come from the Marvel Universe.

There were other reasons for concern. The original story and screenplay was written by Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), with Wright scheduled to direct. For geeks, that was a dream pairing. However, the head of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, wasn’t pleased with the script and had revisions made without Wright’s input. When he saw the changes, Wright walked away. Instead Marvel brought in Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) to polish the script along with star Paul Rudd, and gave the movie to Peyton Reed (Bring it On, Down with Love) to direct. Such conflict can often sink a movie, but instead it seems the best parts were kept in the script, and the movie even made its original release date.

The movie begins with a preface from the 1980s. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, meets with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) to resign from SHIELD when he discovers Carson is trying to fabricate the formula Pym uses to miniaturize. (Note: There is gaff in the scene: look for the disappearing blood.)

Fast forward to the present day. Pym has been ousted from his own company in a boardroom revolt led by his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly from “Lost”). He’s invited back to witness Cross’s announcement that they will soon perfect a new version of Pym’s formula, allowing for the creation of an army in high-powered suits that would be unstoppable by conventional forces.

At the same time Scott Lang (Rudd) is being released from San Quentin. The mechanical engineer had turned into a Robin Hood burglar to take back the money a corrupt businessman had stolen, but instead of thanks he’s sent to prison. When he gets out he tries to go straight for the sake of his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). It’s tough, since no one will hire an ex-con, and to add insult to injury his former wife (Judy Greer) is engaged to a cop (Bobby Cannavale).  Eventually Lang goes along with three other ex-cons (Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, and rapper T.I.) to break into a house. It leads to one of the wildest job interviews ever.

Ant-Man balances off-kilter comedy with its thrills and manages to succeed on both levels, not an easy thing to do. While all the Marvel movies have an element of humor, the laughs are secondary to the action. In Ant-Man, it’s beautifully blended so that you’re rolling with laughter even as you’re breathing fast from the thrills. Rudd is the perfect actor for this role, handling the performance with tongue-in-cheek intelligence. Michael Douglas is in excellent form as well, capturing some of the cocky attitude from Romancing the Stone along with a droll humor. The writers gave him and Evangeline Lilly a complex relationship that, like flint and stone. keeps sparks flying, though they manage to pay it off in a way that makes it understandable.

While it isn’t Wright directing, Peyton Reed’s work captures Wright’s spirit and supports the script beautifully. I would have liked to have seen what Wright would have done if left on his own, but I have no complaints about the final product.

While Avengers and dinosaurs have been the big items this summer movie season, it’s worth it to aim small and see Ant-Man. The filmmakers have crammed a lot of delights into a tiny package. Also make sure you stay to the very end as there are two tags, one after the initial credits, and another at the very end. The one at the end is a lead up to probably the most anticipated movie of 2016

It’s The End of The World as We Know It (Part II)

In the summer of 2013, I’d contrasted two “End of the World” movies that could hardly have been more different: World War Z and This Is The End. The latter movie took the apocalypse genre and played it for laughs, and did it successfully overall. It isn’t alone, though, in handling the Final Days with a laugh track. Within comedy’s broad umbrella, there are three other recent movies that have dealt with this – one with broad humor, one with a mix of pathos and outrageousness, and one that cast a jaundiced eye at what the experience would be like.

The World’s End (2013) was the final film in the “Cornetto” series – named for an addictive English ice cream treat that’s like a “Drumstick” in the US, but on steroids. All the movies were directed by Edgar Wright, written by Wright and Simon Pegg, and starred Pegg and Nick Frost. The first two films, Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz beautifully spoofed the horror and buddy cop genres, while World’s End takes on science fiction.

Pegg plays a ne’er-do-well who gathers his old band of mates to do an epic pub crawl. Twenty years earlier, as fresh school graduates, the group had tried and failed miserably to make it through the ten pubs in their home town. The others in the group, played by Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, are roped in by Pegg, whose time in school was his high water mark. Once back home, Pegg meets up with the love of his early life, played by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl). The group’s plans are compromised when they discover most of the town’s current inhabitants have been replaced by robots.

The film owes much to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though Wright and Pegg put their own twist on it. Overall World’s End is the weakest film of the “Cornetto” series, but that’s in part because Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz set the bar so high.

Seeking a Friend for The End of The World (2012) pairs Steve Carell and Kiera Knightly as two neighbors who are thrust together as a 70 mile wide asteroid approaches the Earth. Think Armageddon without Bruce Willis or any hope of salvation.

The movie also fits into the road trip genre. As society breaks down, Carell and Knightly leave the city where they’ve lived in pursuit of two final goals. For Carell, it’s to find a girl he’d loved and lost years earlier, while Knightly wants to somehow make it back to the British Isles to say goodbye to her family. While they travel together, what’s important to them slowly changes.

Seeking a Friend is unusual in its hopelessness, which is not something one often sees portrayed in a film – usually with good reason, since it kills the box office. Even with Carell and Knightly, the film only grossed about six million in theaters. It’s leavened, though, by several outrageous scenes, including having dinner at a chain restaurant that promotes happiness a little too forcefully.

It’s A Disaster (2012) was made for a micro-budget by writer/director Todd Berger, and had a micro box office during its brief release, but it’s now available on HBO and streaming services. You don’t usually think indie film and disaster flick at the same time, but Berger pulls it off.

Four couples come together for a “couples brunch.” Tracey (Julia Stiles), a single doctor, brings the man she’s dating, Glen (David Cross) to the home of Emma and Pete (Errin Hayes, Blaise Miller). Also there are Lexi and Buck (Rachel Boston, Kevin Brennan) who are loosely married, and Hedy and Shane (America Ferrera, Jeff Grace) who’ve been engaged for half a decade. The dinner party becomes uncomfortable quickly, but then they’re forced to stay together when a series of dirty bombs are exploded in the city and they must seal up the house to survive.

Berger presents eight modern, self-centered people who are pretty much useless in a crisis. Part of the fun is to see how most of them stay true to form even when faced with their own mortality, while some take a quick dive off the deep end. Think of the film as On the Beach played by the cast of “Seinfeld.”

If the world ever does come to an end, you might want to pass the time until the end binge-watching these films. Go out with a smile on your face.