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Geeks like me have been bitching about director Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man exodus for several years now. Wright was hard at work on Ant-Man for the better part of a decade, but left abruptly during production due to “creative differences.”

My initial reaction to that news was: “Farts!”

We wound up getting an OK Ant-Man from director Peyton Reed, while Wright announced his next project would be a car-chase movie, written by himself. The final product is Baby Driver, starring Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver with tinnitus—and it truly is a great time.

It’s a nice antidote to The Fate of the Furious, a movie that made me never want to see a car-chase movie again. The Baby Driver soundtrack is one of the year’s best, and the guy in the title role is a major star in the making.

Elgort plays Baby; we see him in the film’s opening sequence driving the getaway car for a robbery, a kinetic chase choreographed to the great Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms.” The scene snaps with a colorful energy that’s been missing from car-chase films of late.

The best car-chase movie in recent years, Drive, also featured a lonely driver and great vroom-vroom scenes, but the soundtrack and look for that film were more meditative and hazy. (I’m not complaining; it worked beautifully.) Baby Driver opts for a more clear-eyed, zippy approach, and it pays off.

Baby winds up on various crews run by a criminal kingpin played by Kevin Spacey, here reliving the angrier portion of his Glengarry Glen Ross role. Baby owes the man, and he has to drive until he pays him off—at least that’s what he thinks the deal is.

The chases go off with precision editing, and are filmed in a way that makes you feel like you are in the car. The soundtrack, featuring music ranging from Simon and Garfunkel to Focus to Queen, perfectly complements the scenes.

The supporting cast includes Lily James, who enchants as Baby’s love interest, diner-waitress Debora. (Cue the Beck song.) Jon Hamm gets a chance to go psycho as Buddy, a role that is deceptively laid back until Baby flips his switch. Jamie Foxx has a killer turn as Bats, the hothead of the crew who is equal parts smart and paranoid maniac. In one of the year’s great cameos, the one and only Paul Williams (the man who penned The Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection”!) shows up as a gun dealer. I’m a child of the ’70s, and I love that little guy!

Wright has called the movie an homage to the likes of Reservoir Dogs, Heat and The Blues Brothers. He also cites Point Break, an influence that is evident in the use of Halloween masks during heists, and the presence of Flea as one of the robbers. In a different sort of homage, Elgort sports a jacket that has a Han Solo look to it—perhaps a nod to the fact that he was in the running for the role of young Han Solo last year.

If you plan on seeing Baby Driver in theaters, make sure that theater has a premium sound system. The one I saw it in had sound that was a little too muddy and soft. There was no bass in my theater. I was a little sad.

The summer movie season had stalled out a bit after that Transformers fiasco, but Baby Driver gets things back on track. Does this movie make up for the loss of Wright on Ant-Man? Nah; I’m still going to bitch about that. But it is a nice addition to the Wright movie canon, and proof that the guy can do no wrong.

Baby Driver is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Divergent series, aka “Adventures in Hardcore Lethargy,” continues with Insurgent, a film as boring and pointless as its predecessor.

Director Robert Schwentke chooses a lot of gray tones to go with dull dialogue and muddled, straining performances. Shailene Woodley, an actress who is impressive most of the time, simply doesn’t make an intriguing action heroine. The material seems beneath her.

After the oh-so rousing events of the first film, Tris (Woodley) and Four (Theo James) are living in a “faction-free” zone. In this film’s universe, everybody is categorized into a faction: Amity, Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Candor, Flounder and Douchebag. I would say this mess has the worst young-adult fiction premise ever, but I’ve seen the Twilight films, so I would be lying my ass off.

While living amongst the faction-less, Tris and Four have a surprise meeting with Four’s hot mom, Evelyn, played by the incomparable Naomi Watts, one of my all-time-favorite actresses. Watts is totally wasting her time in this crap, but if Kate Winslet can slum in this pigeon spooge, so can Watts. Watts’ appearance is fairly brief in this chapter, but her character figures to be bigger in future installments. In other words, I weep for Watts’ immediate film future.

Tris eventually winds up in the evil grasp of Jeanine (Winslet) again, and she is forced into a simulator that has the film trying to trick the audience into thinking things are really happening. So when Tris is being rescued, or kicking Winslet’s ass, or drinking a Diet Coke, it’s all just a hallucination. The movie spends much of its running time trying to dupe you. I assure you: If you’ve plunked down your green for this cat poo, you’ve already been duped.

One simulation has Tris trying to save her mommy (Ashley Judd, of The Identical and Dolphin Tale 2) from a broken, flying building. We are well aware this simulation isn’t real; after all, it involves a flying building. To say it lacks tension would be an understatement.

Are you noticing the talent I’ve mentioned so far? Woodley, Winslet, Watts (lots of “W” names)—and I haven’t even mentioned the great Miles Teller of Whiplash fame, or Ansel Elgort. Teller and Elgort have both had the privilege of starring with Woodley in much better movies: The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, respectively. I was hoping Teller and Elgort would get in a slap-fight over Woodley’s hand in marriage during their scenes together. It would’ve made no sense, but would’ve provided something resembling a pulse in this picture.

It’s hard to watch a talent like Woodley screech and moan her way through this dialogue. She follows in the footsteps of Kristen Stewart as a talented actress who sold out for a young-adult-fiction film series. Jennifer Lawrence has managed to make the equally ridiculous Hunger Games series watchable, but those movies also have Woody Harrelson in an awesome Kurt Cobain wig, so she has somewhat of an unfair advantage.

Taking a cue from the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games cash cows, the Divergent series will end by splitting the final novel in the book trilogy, Allegiant, into two films. This means we are only halfway through this cinematic hell ride.

The Divergent Series: Insurgent is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I will not lie: Sometimes, I walk into a movie theater generally uninterested in what a movie might be offering, perhaps due to weak trailers or press that failed to generate excitement. I walked into The Fault in Our Stars feeling that way, fearing I was in for a sap-fest.

Boy, was I wrong.

Shailene Woodley is downright incredible as Hazel, a 16-year-old struggling with thyroid cancer. After being sent to a support group by her mother (Laura Dern … God, I love her), she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort, who is so charming it’s almost disgusting), a basketball player who lost his leg to cancer—but he sure as hell hasn’t lost his lust for life. The two hit it off, and the result is the best teen romance since The Spectacular Now, which also starred Woodley.

The film handles its subject matter with enough grace for a thousand movies. When Gus, Hazel and her mom travel to Amsterdam to meet Hazel’s favorite author (Willem Dafoe, who is on freaking fire), the resulting meeting stands as one of the best scenes of 2014.

Much praise goes to director Josh Boone for making a supremely entertaining film, and to author John Green, who wrote the 2012 novel on which the film is based. You could call this a tearjerker, but that seems a little insulting: There’s nothing manipulative about Boone’s direction, or the performances by Woodley, Elgort, Dern, Nat Wolff and the rest of the cast. They all won me over in a big way.

The Fault in Our Stars is playing at Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-323-4466); the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615).

Published in Reviews

If you’ve read the 1974 Stephen King novel Carrie, and you’ve seen the 1976 Brian De Palma film, you know that the book and the film are very different.

Well, the new Carrie remake, which stars Chloë Grace Moretz in the role that netted Sissy Spacek an Oscar nomination for the 1976 film, has more in common with De Palma’s film than King’s novel.

King’s novel, about a bullied telekinetic high school girl who endures one prank too many at the senior prom, depicted a series of episodic news reports, flashbacks and interviews, for the most part, to tell the story.

The new film welcomes a few of the novel’s plot points back into the story, although it takes a lot of the same liberties that De Palma took with the novel. In the new version, a few more characters survive the fiery black-prom tragedy—and one character might be pregnant. Otherwise, this feels like a remake of De Palma’s movie rather than a faithful retelling of King’s book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: De Palma went to the core of that novel, massaged its great ideas, and made something akin to a horror masterpiece, with much thanks given to the brilliant Spacek.

Director Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry), unfortunately, doesn’t turn in anything that makes a Carrie remake worthwhile. Yes, the new film takes place in the present, where cellular phones and the Internet have become prevalent bullying weaponry—but much of the plot execution remains the same. In a lot of ways, this version even rips off De Palma.

Moretz (Kick-Ass) was a mere 15 years old during the filming—a little young for a high school senior. While Spacek did an exemplary job playing younger than her then 26 years for the original, Moretz looks like a freshman crashing the senior prom.

Still, the Moretz performance is, in many ways, admirable. She captures the pain and confusion of a young girl tormented by her classmates after receiving no valuable life-coaching from her religious-fanatic mother (played here by Julianne Moore in a role originated by the Oscar-nominated Piper Laurie). Interestingly, Goetz also played a tormented teen in this year’s awful Kick-Ass 2.

Moore goes to a darker place with the role of Margaret White when compared to Laurie’s campy, crazy take. This Margaret is far harder on herself (i.e. intentional cutting) and her daughter; she simmers with a dark, disturbing violence that makes her truly hateful. Goetz and Moore play well off each other during the movie’s major confrontation scenes.

As for supporting performances, Pierce gets it right with the casting of Gabriella Wilde as the virtuous Sue Snell, the popular student who regrets bullying Carrie and asks her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (a charming Ansel Elgort), to escort Carrie to the prom—with deadly results. Judy Greer is OK as the gym teacher who tries to get Carrie through everything in one piece.

On the down side, Portia Doubleday and Alex Russell are mere caricatures as villains Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan (notoriously played by the wild-eyed Nancy Allen and John Travolta in the ’76 version). Their dull portrayals offer nothing new.

The infamous prom scene, in which Carrie goes nuclear after getting doused with pig’s blood, was an operatic, gloriously torturous, expertly prolonged hell in De Palma’s movie. In the new version, the scene feels hastily edited and glossed over with a CGI polish. It totally misses the mark, and is the final reason that this remake is mediocre, at best.

I suppose if you’ve never seen De Palma’s film, the 2013 version might seem better. While the remake is, at times, skillfully made, its resources could’ve been put to a better cinematic use—like, say, an actual big-screen adaptation of King’s great novel, The Stand. A TV miniseries starring Molly Ringwald just isn't enough!

Carrie is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews