Baby Driver

June 29, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey
Directed by: Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”)
Written by: Edgar Wright (“Hot Fuzz”)

In a landscape overpopulated with dour and brooding popcorn movies, “Baby Driver” stands out as an optimistic beacon of cinematic bliss. This is moviemaking at its most relentlessly joyful, an intoxicating fusion of music and image guaranteed to make you grin from ear to ear. It’d be easy to say that we need more movies like this, but it’s impossible to duplicate something so special.

Ansel Elgort has always held a strong screen presence, but this will be the movie that makes him a star. He perfectly blends charm and angst, giving us a character that recalls Sinatra, McQueen, Brando, and Kelly, but one that is unarguably entirely his own. Elgort plays Baby, a getaway driver who constantly listens to music to drown out the tinnitus brought about by the car accident that took his parents‘ lives. Increasingly perturbed by the blood-tinged darkness his job attracts, Baby wants nothing more than to leave everything behind him and hit the road with beautiful waitress who works at the local diner.

Writer and director Edgar Wright’s film operates in a well-established genre (a cameo by Walter Hill cements what branch of cinema Edgar Wright is saluting), and he nails all the familiar notes while simultaneously bringing his singular vision to the table. The car chases are thrilling and fresh, taking place during the day to better see the great practical stunt work on display. There’s a warehouse shootout that, like everything else in “Baby Driver,” is choreographed and synced up perfectly in line with a killer soundtrack.

The romance between Baby and Debora (Lily James) has a classic feel to it. The two share a scene in a laundromat that bursts with energy and romance, and little details like talking on a payphone makes their relationship even more intoxicating. There’s a showdown between Baby and a villain at the end of the film, but it doesn’t involve that character you’d expect. In fact, you understand where both parties are coming from and find it hard to root entirely for one character. Even the final moments of the film take an unexpected but completely enthralling turn.

Wright’s script is layered, witty, and hilarious. All of his actors get great material to work with no matter the size of their part. You’ve never seen Jamie Foxx this terrifying, Kevin Spacey this catty, and Jon Hamm so gosh-darned magnetic. Everyone is on their A game here, including people in smaller roles. Mexico City native Eiza Gonzalez is a badass dame. Cast her in stuff, Hollywood. She’s destined for greatness. CJ Jones brings great heart to the table as Baby’s deaf roommate and father figure. There’s even a moment where Brogan Hall steals the show as Kevin Spacey’s son. The masterclass in editing is a crucial character in the film as well. There’s just so much to love and relish here. Before you even know it, “Baby Driver” will have stolen your heart.

Million Dollar Arm

May 16, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton
Directed by: Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”)
Written by: Tom McCarthy (“Win Win”)

More than any other major North American sports league, Major League Baseball has truly gone international.  Last season, more than a quarter of the league’s players on opening day rosters were born outside of the United States, representing 15 countries.  As the game continues to expand, areas of the world once considered a new baseball frontier like the Dominican Republic are a fixture of any scout’s itinerary.  Just as “Moneyball” showed the competitive edge that can be gained from tapping into a market inefficiency, “Million Dollar Arm” shows how creative strategies and unconventional thinking can continue to mine talent from unexpected places.

As a last ditch effort to save his sports agency, agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) comes up with a reality TV show idea with the intent of converting cricket players to major league pitchers. When the two players from India are selected (Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma) they embark on an unlikely journey to earn a professional contract.

From early on in the film, it is clear the cast is one of the strong points of the film. Despite playing the lead on a massively popular TV show (“Mad Men”), this is one of the first leading film roles for Hamm. It’s a good performance, albeit one that doesn’t require much other than occupying a lot of screen time, which he does quite capably. Nonetheless, he is charismatic enough to make his role worthwhile. As actors with little recognition to American audiences, Mittal and Sharma, are able to capture elements of culture shock without overdoing it.

With such a brilliant past output, it makes sense that Disney would hire such a talented screenwriter in Thomas McCarthy. Unfortunately, McCarthy’s writing is stifled and slightly generic. That isn’t to say it is bad, but it does go through the motions and hits every expected narrative and emotional arc you’d expect from a Disney movie, which makes it more of a by-the-numbers sports film than something truly special.

Though there isn’t a terrible amount of it, director Craig Gillespie does a good job of building a convincing world of baseball and constructing the pitching montages and an even better job of photographing the streets of India. By the sometimes desolate and cramped living spaces, Gillespie does a great job of showing the cultural differences that go both ways.

At its core, “Million Dollar Arm,” like many other underdog sports films, is about pursuing a dream against all odds. As a film, it doesn’t do any one thing particularly well, but rather a decent job at several things. While many of the notes are certainly familiar, none of them are false and the film does a solid job of developing emotional investment. It’s far too long and there is nothing particularly unique or imaginative about it, but for a family sports movie, you could do a lot worse.

Friends with Kids

March 13, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Adam Scott, Jennifer Wesfeldt, Jon Hamm
Directed by: Jennifer Wesfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein”)
Written by: Jennifer Wesfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein”)

These days there are so many ways to have a family that hardly anything could really be classified as “unconventional.” But when long-time best friends Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Wesfeldt) devise a plan to have a child without subjecting themselves to the pitfalls of marriage, their friends cannot believe they could follow through with such a crazy scheme.  This experiment of essentially going halfsies with the responsibilities of a child sets the stage for “Friends with Kids,” a dramedy that starts off uniquely funny but ultimately loses steam in its familiar dénouement.

Scott remains one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. Although not as dynamic as his stunning role in 2009’s “The Vicious Kind,” he shows he is perfectly capable of anchoring a movie in a lead role. He has a very natural and understated comic delivery and he is no doubt at his best when he is being a little abrasive. The rest of the cast is somewhat of a reunion from the film “Bridesmaids,” as four principal cast members from that film are in “Friends with Kids.” While Jon Hamm has a couple of great scenes to work with, the rest of the “Bridesmaids” alum doesn’t contribute much. For example, Chris O’Dowd sports a very strange accent that is hard to distinguish and Maya Rudolph’s character exists only to nag. It’s hard to believe director/writer Wesfeldt couldn’t even give the versatile Kristen Wiig something more to do other than drink wine and give piercing stares.

The set up in “Friends with Kids” is respectable, with a unique spin on the romantic comedy with two platonic friends agreeing to have a kid. It continues to be unique when just about everything goes perfectly smooth and there aren’t any problems. Of course, nobody would want to watch a movie about a situation working flawlessly and things inevitably begin to crumble. And as with the events on screen, so goes the structure of the film as it begins to feel formulaic and familiar.

“Friends with Kids” is certainly not a “laugh-out-loud” type of comedy. The humor is predominantly subtle and largely thanks to Scott’s knack for biting sarcasm. The film is certainly at its best when it hits its dramatic beats. One especially fantastic scene in particular is when Scott and Hamm’s characters have a war of words at a dinner table. In this scene, we get to see Scott’s acting chops on full display. When the film displays the chaos and strain having children can create in a relationship is when things get authentic.

The film ends with Wesfeldt uttering a strand of six utterly unromantic words that is almost certain to rub a good portion of the audience the wrong way. With the triple duty of acting, writing and directing, Wesfeldt probably should have focused her attention on making just one of those elements stand out instead of providing three so-so efforts spread around. It isn’t a terrible movie, but one can’t help feel like “Friends with Kids” could have been so much more.

Bridesmaids

May 13, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Rose Byrne, Maya Rudolph
Directed by: Paul Feig (TV’s “The Office”)
Written by: Kristen Wiig (debut) and Annie Mumolo (debut)

No one can take a tennis ball to the tit quite like comedienne Kristen Wiig. Her threshold for pain is only one of many admirable traits she possesses in “Bridesmaids,” a bold and bawdy comedy that proves having balls isn’t just for boys anymore.

While the movie’s generic title might scream Kate Hudson rom-com horror, those looking for more than the usual cliché girls-night-out fare will find plenty of genuinely side-splitting scenes in this raunchy Judd Apatow-produced chick flick, as they did in the Apatow-directed “Knocked Up.” Personal favor: When recommending it to your friends, please don’t refer to Bridesmaids as the female version of “The Hangover.” It deserves better.

In “Bridesmaids,” director Paul Feig (TV’s “The Office”) puts Wiig in charge of her own sinking ship as the whip-smart albeit insecure (and very single) heroine Annie, a failed thirty-something entrepreneur stuck in a rut. Despite the occasional roll in the sack with sleazy tool Ted (Jon Hamm), Annie doesn’t have any real relationship prospects nor does she care much about her depressing job (peddling jewelry to happy couples) and equally depressing home life (her roommates are ungrateful sibling albinos).

Annie is forced to suck it up when her lifelong BFF Lillian (Maya Rudolph) asks her to be her maid of honor, a role in movie world aching to basically be dragged through the mud while everyone else enjoys the pre-wedding festivities. She’s pitted against Lillian’s newest gal pal Helen (Rose Byrne), a character so perfectly annoying she rivals Cameron Diaz’s bubbly Kimberly Wallace in “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

The claws come out with hilarious result as Annie and Lillian – along with the three other bridesmaids Becca, Rita, and Megan (underwritten Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey and scene-stealing Melissa McCarthy) – try and get through the coming weeks without gouging anyone’s pretty little eyes out.

Sharply written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, “Bridesmaids” veers into overly traveled territory at times but never replaces wit with kitschy humor (aside from a well-executed diarrhea gag that feels misplaced in the grand scheme of things). She may just be a glorified bridesmaid, but this is Wiig’s big day. The “Saturday Night Live” alumna has written a lead role for herself with some great awkward moments usually regulated for fools of the male variety. It’s nice to see women can be just as boneheaded when the situation calls for it.