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Sunday, July 23, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''BABY DRIVER" (2017)

The trailer that first advertised British writer & director Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” made it look like a Young Adult knock-off of French producer Luc Beeson’s “Transporter” franchise with rugged, austere Jason Statham.  Fortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Indeed, the films both deal with elusive getaway car drivers. Despite their apparent resemblance, these movies share little in common except for their automotive audacity.  Comparatively, “Baby Driver” is nothing like Wright’s earlier comic trilogy “Shaun of the Dead” (2994), “Hot Fuzz” (2007), and “The World’s End” (2013).  Two of those movies dealt with supernatural creatures, while “Hot Fuzz” constituted a police parody.  Furthermore, “Baby Driver” is nothing like Wright’s other unconventional outing “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” (2010).  Indeed, Wright performs a 180 with “Baby Driver” (*** OUT OF ****), a straightforward, white-knuckled, R-rated, crime thriller about blood, death, and consequences.  Meantime, unlike the usual bombastic summer release, “Baby Driver” isn’t an outlandish escapade.  Instead, it is a superbly staged, adrenalin-laced actioneer which rarely pulls its punches.  The first three-fourths of this Atlanta-lensed saga is top-notch, while the final fourth marks time with the hero’s atonement for his crimes.  Another thing that differentiates “Baby Driver” from most summer movies is it is neither a blockbuster prequel nor a sequel.  Nobody gives a bad performance.  Indeed, Wright surrounds his handsome, earnest, young leading man, Ansel Elgort of “Divergent,” with a robust cast, featuring Jamie Fox, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Kevin Spacey.  Jamie Fox and Jon Hamm are unforgettable as a pair of unhinged hoodlums who abhor each other, while Kevin Spacey towers above both as the wily mastermind of all the film’s crimes.  Clearly, something about Edgar Wright’s tale of mayhem and murder appealed to these Hollywood veterans, and they indulge in being both evil and obnoxious.  Honorable mention goes to behind-the-scenes veteran stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott of “John Wick” fame as well as the hundred or more precision drivers, riggers, camera bike riders, and stunt doubles who helped him orchestrate several harrowing but realistic driving sequences that never turn into the bizarre tomfooleries of the “Transporter” movies.  Hey, I loved the “Transporter” movies, but “Baby Driver” strives to keep things realistic.

Baby (Ansel Elgort of “The Fault in Our Stars”) is a fearless, young hellion with a taste of tunes and reckless driving that converge once he takes the wheel of any vehicle.  He survived a traumatic childhood after his contentious mother and father slammed their car into the rear of a tractor-trailer and died.  Baby escaped grievous bodily harm.  Nevertheless, he carries a couple of token scars on above an eyebrow and across his cheek. Wright sketches in Baby’s background when he doesn’t replay the scene of the accident that killed his parents.  Meantime, he spent his teen years stealing cars and keeping the Atlanta Police in his rearview mirror.  At the same time, he became a wizard with recording music in any format and grooves to his iPod whenever he careens around town to drown out “the hum in his drum” caused by tinnitus.  Writer & director Edgar Wright provides us with a protagonist both sympathetic and charming.  Baby doesn’t brag, he just drives, and when he holds onto the wheel, he can go anywhere--if there is anywhere to go.  Literally, he can thread the eye of a needle in his stick-shift cars, and he can escape from predicaments that seem well-nigh impossible. 

Initially, we see Baby drive the getaway car after a bank robbery, and he leads the Atlanta Police on a spectacular chase.  Afterward, while the well-tailored criminal mastermind, Doc (Kevin Spacey of “The Usual Suspects”), is dividing up the loot, one of the robbers, Griff (Jon Bernthal of “The Accountant”), minimizes Baby’s role in the hold-up.  Griff warns Baby that one way or another Baby will wind up with blood on his hands.  We learn from Wright’s fast-paced, expository dialogue that Doc discovered Baby because he stole Doc’s Mercedes.  Since that incident, Doc has used Baby as his wheel-man.  Moreover, Doc keeps him on his payroll so the energetic rapscallion can pay off his debt to him.  Basically, “Baby Driver” boils down to a morality yarn about a young thief who doesn’t want to see anybody die during the commission of a crime.  Unlike the rest of the characters in “Baby Driver,” Baby is the only one with a shred of decency. 

The sobering but exasperating thing about Baby is that he doesn’t elude the long arm of the law every time and that makes him more believable and vulnerable.  Fortunately, few of Baby’s asphalt antics are so impractical that they could be considered preposterous.  After an exhilarating opening sequence where our hero delivers Doc’s accomplices without a scratch, Baby embarks on an odyssey that alters his life.  Primarily, Baby falls in love with a cute, young waitress at a 24-hour diner where he likes to drink java.  Debora (Lily James of “Cinderella”) walks into Baby’s life and she turns him every which way but loose.  Once he has repaid Doc for everything that he took from him when he stole his car, Baby plans to quit crime.  In fact, he is on the straight and narrow and delivering orders for Goodfellas Pizza when Doc crosses his path again and convinces him to come back and drive for him.

“Baby Driver” boasts some of the best, high-speed driving sequences since the crime thriller “Drive” (2011) with Ryan Gosling.  The thieves conspiring with Doc are a cynical, ruthless bunch who would prefer to exit in a blaze of gunfire than submit meekly to the rehabilitative options of the criminal justice system.  Wright ramps up all this anarchy with a dynamic but diverse variety of tunes that Baby listens to according to the occasion.  The hit songs in “Baby Driver” are reminiscent of those in the two “Guardians of the Galaxy” sci-fi space operas.  Consequently, Ansel Elgort should be on the road to superstardom, because nothing about “Baby Driver” is infantile.

Monday, July 17, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''OPERATION: DUNKIRK" (2017)




Apart from some vintage, black & white, newsreel footage of the historic British retreat from France in 1940, director Nick Lyon’s “Operation Dunkirk” (** OUT OF ****) has nothing to do with that landmark event aside from the setting. “Operation Dunkirk” reminded me of an earlier World War II epic, director Walter Grauman’s “The Last Escape” (1971) starring Stuart Whitman. These two Second War World sagas chronicled the Allied rescue of important German scientists.  Whitman reached his scientist before the Russians. Similarly, a squad of British soldiers under Lieutenant Galloway (Ifan Meredith of “Metroland”) are ordered to find a German scientist (newcomer Eddie Curry) whose expertise in algorithms may significantly enhance radar technology.  Historically, radar saved England from the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940.  This critical technology enabled the English to detect German warplanes when they entered Allied airspace and alert Sir Hugh Dowding’s Fighter Command about them.  Furthermore, radar meant that the heavily outnumbered RAF would not have to maintain constant full-scale aerial surveillance.  This meant their pilots could grab some much-needed sack time between dogfights.  Consequently, the premise that a German scientist would possess valuable technological information about radar which would aid the British seems unlikely.  Meantime, this stubborn scientist has refused adamantly to share his algorithms with Hitler.  Now, historical accuracy doesn’t always make a movie more entertaining.  Consequently, Hollywood often plays fast and loose with the facts to heighten dramatic impact.



Anyway, back to the plot.  When one of several, hand-picked commandos asks Colonel Plummer (Gerard Pauwels of “Resurrection”) about their evacuation, Plummer barks, “Pull your balls out of your throat and be a soldier.” Later, Galloway and his five men cruise off in a jeep to a rendezvous with the French Resistance.  Armed with American .50 caliber Thompson submachine guns, they leave the jeep and cross a cornfield.  They don’t behave like battlefield veterans because they walk too closely together without a scout either at point or on drag.  When they arrive at a huge lumber storage facility, a member of the French Resistance challenges them.  By this time, the villainous Nazi officer, Strasser (Michael Wouters of “Sins of the Guilty”) has shot the unfortunate scientist to death. Galloway reacts with incredulity when the Resistance explains that they have a woman, Angelique (Kimberley Hews of “The Other Wife”), for him to escort back to headquarters. Not only is Angelique the late scientist’s daughter, but also she has memorized the algorithm.  Not long after the British show up at the lumber yard, the Germans arrive.  The fact the villains are hot on the heels of our heroes and stay one step behind them is a positive point in favor of Lyon and his writers.  Later, the same French Resistance member who challenged Galloway is captured, questioned, and then shot in the back by the Nazis.  Meantime, Galloway refuses to turn Angelique over to the Germans. A firefight erupts.  The Germans refuse to take cover.  Instead, they stand in the open and blaze away at the British hidden in a brick building.  The arrogant Strasser stands with his men as if he were bulletproof.  The Germans riddle the building with a hail of gunfire, and then they discover to their chagrin that the British and Angelique have fled.  All of this occurs during the first 30 minutes of this 95-minute epic. Happily, Lyon keeps the action moving forward at a steady pace.  Ultimately, he brings the action right down to the wire with a last-minute appearance of the Royal Air Force as the air force routes the Germans.



“Operation Dunkirk” doesn’t rank as your average Asylum quickie, knock-off.  “Rise of the Zombies” director Lyon takes and scenarists Geoff Mead of “I Am Omega,” and Stephen Meier of “Re-Generator” take themselves somewhat seriously.  Unlike most straight-to-video Asylum outings, the action is depicted in a largely straightforward manner, with the unsavory Strasser relentlessly pursuing the British.  Mind you, this is the same Nazi officer who not only derived sadistic glee in torturing, but also in murdering the scientist.  Strasser enjoys burning the hand of Resistance member with a clothes iron and then impales it with a screwdriver so he can induce the Frenchman to squeal.  At the same time, “Operation: Dunkirk” is a compilation of World War II clich├ęs. First, Galloway and company must endure their commanding officer’s standard-issue speech: “This mission could not only save lives but win the war.”  Second, a seriously wounded British soldier insists on being left behind by his fellow soldiers.  When two Germans stumble onto him, he brandishes a hand grenade and blows them to smithereens.  Third, another British soldier steps on a cleverly hidden German booby trap by a tree.  Actually, these two scenes demonstrate Lyon’s dramatic strength as a director.  He generates suspense and tension in both instances.  My quibble with the hand grenade scene is that the soldier doesn’t know when to shut up.  The ironic thing about the booby trap scene is that the British commander saves his soldier’s life, but a shattered tree branch skewers his thigh like shrapnel and lodges perilously close to his femoral artery.  Meantime, it is interesting to note that Lyon provides subtitles so the nasty German officer can speak in German.  Since I am not fluent in German, I cannot comment on the accuracy of both the translation or the German language.  The appearance of Sherman tanks is a plus.  Blood is spilled in most of the combat scenes, too.



Clearly, Asylum produced “Operation: Dunkirk” to cash in on writer & director Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming “Dunkirk.” Typically, Asylum cranks out knock-off movies that exploit bigger studio releases.  Although “Operation: Dunkirk” is routine and often unrealistic, director Nick Lyon’s World War II thriller amounts to a better-than-average Asylum release.




Saturday, July 8, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT" (2017)



“Armageddon” director Michael Bay’s extravagant, but preposterous, sci-fi, fantasy yarn “Transformers: The Last Knight” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) constitutes the fifth entry in the Hasbro action figures inspired film franchise.  Although this fourth sequel boasts little of the spontaneity of Bay’s first “Transformers,” this PG-13 rated installment tries to set itself apart from earlier outings. “The Last Knight’s” larger-than-life shenanigans occur not only in the Medieval kingdom of King Arthur’s Britain, but also on the Transformers’ native planet Cybertron at the fringes of the Solar System.  In a sense, Bay’s fifth “Transformers” saga doubles as both a prequel and a sequel.  Nevertheless, the film suffers from convoluted plotting that virtually defies synopsis. A quartet of scenarists--“Iron Man’s” Art Marcum & Mark Holloway, “Black Hawk Down’s” Ken Nolan, and “I, Robot’s” Akiva Goldsman overwhelm us with too much hokum. Michael Bay veers from slapstick comedy to straightforward heroics and the two often clash.  Everything revolves around an outlandish scavenger hunt on Earth as well as in Outer Space.  Indeed, Bay and his writers wear out their welcome as they wallow for almost two-and-a-half-hours setting up and then concluding their predictable plot. 

Mark Wahlberg makes an encore appearance as Cade Yeager, an intrepid but unkempt Texas inventor who sympathizes with the Autobots.  Promoted from Captain to Colonel, William Lennox (Josh Duhamel) returns to the franchise after sitting out the third sequel “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (2014).  Things have changed alarmingly since “Age of Extinction.”  Basically, mankind has branded the Transformers—both the honorable Autobots and the dastardly Decepticons--as ‘undesirables.’  The governments the of world have assembled a multinational Transformer Reaction Force (TRF) to eradicate these shape-shifting aliens. Mind you, things went sour for the Autobots during the cataclysmic battle of Chicago in Bay’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (2011).  While the Windy City was devastated, Chicago wasn’t reduced to complete rubble.  Afterward, the authorities dissolved their military alliance with the Autobots against the wicked Decepticons. “Transformers: The Last Knight” picks up where “Age of Extinction” ended, with Autobot commander Optimus Prime plunging into space to find his creator.

Whereas “Age of Extinction” opened during the Jurassic Age, “The Last Knight” unfolds in 484 A.D.  The legendary King Arthur (Liam Garrigan of “The Legend of Hercules”) and his outnumbered troops are waging a desperate war against the bloodthirsty Saxons.  Indeed, things look perilous for Arthur, until the sozzled magician Merlin (Stanley Tucci of “The Hunger Games”) makes a pact with the Knights of Iacon, twelve Transformers who sought refuge on Earth, who entrust him with a secret weapon. If Merlin will remain mum about their presence, the Autobots will reward him.  Meantime, King Arthur’s own knights ridicule him for his confidence in Merlin.  Just as everything appears doomed, a gargantuan, fire-breathing, dragon with three-heads swoops in over the battlefield and scorches the Saxons! 

Sixteen-hundred years later, a Transformer spacecraft crashes in a ruined sector of Chicago. School kids gather at the crash site, but a man-made Sentinel robot patrolling this forbidden zone opens fire on them.  At this point, we’re told that all Transformers have been outlawed, and the Transformer Reaction Force (TRF) has been formed to exterminate all Transformers.  This heavily-armed, SWAT-team style force tangles with a spunky, orphaned, 14-year old hellion, Izabella (Isabela Moner of “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life”) and her small adorable robot Sqweeks.  Sqweeks and she trip up the Sentinels, and the kids elude the authorities.  They stumble across another Transformer, Canopy, who relies on wreckage as camouflage.  While the TRF deploy to blast Canopy to pieces, Cade Yeager careens out of nowhere like the cavalry to save them.  He inspects the crashed Transformer spacecraft but he cannot help the unfortunate Transformer.  Nevertheless, the dying Transformer gives him a medallion before it dies. Although the TRF know nothing about this magical talisman, a Decepticon scout named Barricade spots it and informs the villainous Megatron, the ringleader of the Decepticons.  Cade scrambles back to an inconspicuous hideaway, a sprawling junkyard in South Dakota. The tenacious TRF track him down, and Cade abandons it.  Several friendly Autobots who have been lying low with him vamos, too.  Izabella surprises Cade with her impromptu arrival and persuades him to let her accompany him.  Naturally, Sqweeks follows.

Meanwhile, Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) learns that Cybertron has broken into fragments and the debris is drifting toward Earth.  He locates the sorceress Quintessa (voice of Gemma Chan), and she convinces Prime that she created him.  Quintessa resembles a giant necklace fairy flittering about like a malevolent Tinker Bell.  According to Quintessa, a group of Transformer knights robbed her of a magical staff and entrusted it to Merlin for safekeeping.  Quintessa brainwashes Prime, and he becomes her errand boy.  She alters his name to "Nemesis Prime" and reveals that the Earth is actually Unicron.  Unicron is an age-old enemy of Cybertron.  At the same time, sinister incidents are occurring on Earth.  Huge horns have emerged from the surface all over the globe, and scientists are mystified. 

Enough of this nonsense!  Bay and his writers will keep your head spinning with all the action and exposition and foreshadowing going on in this slam-bang, over-the-top, robo-demolition derby.  They also have too many characters, particularly Izabella and Sqweeks.  Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins plays the noble, but loquacious Sir Edmund Burton, a crackpot who amuses Cade and Oxford scholar Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock of “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”) with the clandestine history of the Transformers on Earth.  Of course, only Hopkins could make all the information in his dialogue sound intriguing.  According to Burton, Ms. Wembly is none other than a descendent of Merlin, and she must get her hands on the staff to thwart Quintessa’s scheme to annihilate Earth.  Bay introduces new Autobot and Decepticon characters. Moreover, Bay surprises us with Bumblebee’s resilience in one scene where the TRF blast him to ribbons, but he reassembles himself and triumphs over his adversaries. Cade Yeager and Viviane Wembly pair up to find the staff, and find themselves in the usual number of cliffhanger predicaments.  Altogether, Michael Bay proves he is still the maestro of mindless mayhem with this improbable but high-octane opus.  The best way to watch this movie is in the IMAX/3-D format.  The dogfights between massive robots as well as the trigger-happy soldiers look truly awesome because they appear to be towering over us.