Film Review: Dunkirk

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Dunkirk is a disaster movie disguised as a war movie. The goal of the characters we follow is only to survive and help others survive the terror that lurks just out of sight but that is slowly closing in. The Germans are only referred to by name once or twice, and are only seen once at the end of the film. They are a force of nature, more like the weather in The Day After Tomorrow rather than the Wehrmacht of Saving Private Ryan. Christopher Nolan’s newest film cares more about looking at fear and survival than it does heroism and battle. In doing so Nolan has created something truly special, and perhaps the best film of his career.

Dunkirk is a story told from three different perspectives covering three different periods of time, each following a different group of characters as they participate in the evacuation of the British Army from the beaches of Dunkirk. The first part, The Mole, lasts a week and follows a group of soldiers looking to get off the beach. The second, The Sea, lasts a day and follows a small civilian boat and its crew as they assist in the evacuation, and the third part entitled The Air follows a British spitfire squadron as they patrol over Dunkirk and lasts an hour. Dunkirk takes a non-linear approach, cutting between these perspectives until they come together at the climax.

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Nolan’s characters are archetypes, most don’t have names and those that do are never given full names. They are almost mythological figures, representing a very British view of national identity, stoic and ready to do their duty. There are long stretches where no one speaks, instead Nolan allows the sound to do a lot of the heavy lifting, with the sound design pushed to the front. Gunshots are loud, the rush of the sea and the howl of the wind feel oppressive and threatening, and the sirens on the German dive-bombers add an extra element of fear to every bombing. The score by Hans Zimmer, is ethereal and by incorporating a ticking watch serves to highlight the race against time inherent to the film.

The film also looks amazing, with the claustrophobic tightness of a packed ship hull or an aircraft’s cockpit contrasted with the vastness of the English Channel or the wide open beach. Nolan reverses our expectations with these tight closed spaces becoming a symbol of safety and home while the wide open spaces of the sea and land are threatening, home to the danger that they seek to escape. Each actor conveys their fear and determination in different ways, with particular praise for Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy who portray a boat captain and a shell-shocked soldier respectively. Unfortunately these are the only two actors who are given anything of substance to do, with some characters, such as Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton especially feeling superfluous at times. If there are failures in the film it is that by making these characters so broad it is hard to care about them, although this is often countered by the strong acting.

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My only other small bone to pick is with the ending, which may seem a bit clichéd, and yet still worked for me. This is because unlike with many of Nolan’s other films, this film is deeply moving and emotional without ever seeming manipulative. Every moment of emotion, all the fear, and triumph feel truly earned in this movie, something that is hard to say about his other films. Dunkirk pulls together all of Nolan’s talents to create a film that, like the best in its genre, reveals human nature in the face of disaster. Dunkirk is something truly special, and deserves to be seen.

Rating: 9/10

Dunkirk (2017)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring:  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy.

Rated: PG-13

Film Review: Band of Outsiders

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Band of Outsiders is cool. From the minute it opens to a rapidly edited montage of the main characters faces you can feel it, this is effortlessly cool cinema. Band of Outsiders is about boredom, it’s about looking for purpose, it’s about love, it’s about crime, it’s about good-looking people in good looking clothes and in the hands of a skilled filmmaker that is almost always cool. But in the hands of legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders isn’t just cool, it’s smart, it’s sad, and in its best moments it’s youth captured on-screen.

Godard’s 1964 film is the tale of two young men, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), who fall in love with Odile (Anna Karina) and enlist her into a robbery of the owners of the suburban villa she lives in. As Franz and Arthur drive through the streets of Paris an omniscient narrator (Godard) fill us in on the background of the film. The narrator is an almost literary figure, with the narration at times explaining characters actions and thoughts but also poetically describing the setting of certain scenes. Arthur and Franz arrive at an English class where they meet Odile, talk to her about the money in her home and convince her to hang out with them later that day. After Odile goes home and examines the money she meets up with Franz and Arthur, and they go to a cafe.

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That’s it, that’s about half of the film. Like Godard’s debut film Breathless this is another film without much plot, but a lot of story. The first half of the film features several long takes in which so much is revealed by the actions, movements, and dialogue of the characters that it’s easy to get lost in the film. The prime example of this is a scene where the three main characters sit at a table in a cafe, as characters leave and come back to the table we see Franz and Arthur compete for Odile’s affection shown visually by attempting to sit net to her. This scene culminates in Arthur calling for a minute of silence, in which all sound is suddenly cut. Band of Outsiders doesn’t often demonstrate the rule breaking for which Godard is famous for but when it does, like in the aforementioned scene and in various moments where characters break the fourth wall, it serves to make the movie even better.

Band of Outsiders most interesting scene is also its most famous. While at the cafe, the three main characters perform a dance. The scene mixes narration, sound editing, action, framing, and acting in a whirlwind single take that creates something more than the sum of its parts. Seen as a part of the whole film, it serves as an encapsulation of the film itself, cool and fun on the surface but a little sad and lonely underneath. For as much as the film is cool, fun, and playful on the surface this belies a real sadness underneath. Franz and Arthur are often cruel to Odile, calling her stupid, mocking her, and in the climatic heist hitting her. Odile is often reluctant to go along with the men’s plans but does so anyway after being pressured into doing them. All three characters seem aimless, bored, and desperately lonely. Odile and Franz have a conversation in which Franz talks about how people never form a whole despite their best efforts. This undercurrent of sadness and loneliness lends the film depth and the characters become much more well-rounded because of it. Godard captures the way so much of people’s youth, or at least my youth, was spent doing things just because we were bored, trying to have fun and be cool. There is a sadness and loneliness in boredom, and a happiness in the action boredom leads to, and in Band of Outsiders Godard puts this on-screen.

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Through out the film Godard continues to demonstrate why he is one of cinemas legendary figures. Part of Frances new wave Godard is a master with the camera using it to create vivid shots, often panning to reveal things that were just out of sight. The long takes allow characters to flow in and out of scenes and when combined with the fascinating dialogue pull the viewer deeply in to the film. There are several scenes where Godard allows the action to unfold in a wide shot, with the actors almost in the background, making the viewer feel as though they are watching this all from afar, as if they are spying on these characters. Every shot in this film feels effortlessly blocked and framed.

The few complaints I have about this film concern its ending. The last half-hour or so of the film concerns the actual robbery of the house. Perhaps it is because of the narrative slowness of the rest of the film but the robbery can feel a bit rushed and out of nowhere. Furthermore, the climax of the film, while obviously an homage to the pulp novels and B movies referenced through out the rest of the movie, feels like a bit of a cop-out. But even here there are still some fantastic sequences, including one where the camera stays motionless in one room while people move in and out with the action of the heist occurring off-screen. The other main complain I have is that at times Odile can seem underdeveloped, and sometimes I’m not sure if I totally buy her feelings towards Franz and Arthur.

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For the most part though, Arthur, Franz, and Odile feel very real. The interactions between Arthur and Franz instantly seem like those between long time friends. Odile does feel like a lost, bored, young woman even if her separate romances with Franz and Arthur can feel a bit rushed. In a movie in which character interactions matter so much more than how the characters move within a story it matters that they seem real, and Band of Outsiders pulls this off 99% of the time. Jean-Luc Godard is one of the best directors of all time, and Band of Outsiders shows why by creating one of the most vivid and engrossing vision of youth on-screen. Band of Outsiders is a film every one should see.

Rating: 9.5/10

Band of Outsiders (1964)

Bande à part (original title)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Starring: Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur, and Anna Karina.

Not Rated

Film Review: Sunshine on Leith

Sunshine-on-Leith-2314297Sunshine on Leith is a jukebox musical, a term that strikes fear into my heart. For me a jukebox musical is often synonymous with a thin story, weak characters, and pacing that rushes from song to song disregarding plot in order to fit as many songs as possible into the show. In film form a jukebox musical can be even worse, by removing the live aspect of the stage, it lacks the concert atmosphere that can be fun in the moment. It is a challenge to create a jukebox musical that offers a plot worth following and interesting characters. Sunshine on Leith manages to do this, mostly, for about half of a movie.

Sunshine on Leith is a jukebox musical based on the songs of Scottish folk rock duo The Proclaimers. It tells the story of Ally (Kevin Guthrie) and Davy (George MacKay) two recently discharged soldier who arrive back home in Edinburgh. There Ally returns to his girlfriend, Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor), while Davy falls for Yvonne (Antonia Thomas) a friend and colleague of Liz. The film also follows Liz and Davy’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks) as all three of these couples deal with their future. This portion of the film, where we meet these people, follow them, and see them try to understand where they’re going ans what they are, is great. The film moves deliberately from excellent musical number to excellent musical number, with standout moments being a drunken night out with Ally, Davy, Liz, and Yvonne set to “Over and Done With” and a truly touching rendition of “Make my Hear Fly”. This culminates in the standout musical moment of the film when Ally reveals to Davy that he intends to ask Liz to marry him leading to a rendition of “Let’s Get Married” that leads to an entire pub simulating a wedding ceremony.

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But while the first part of the film spends its time letting us get to know these characters and letting us breathe in the atmosphere the filmmakers have created, the rest of the film succumbs to the same jukebox musical pitfalls. After a Jean’s contrived discovery of the fact that Rab had a brief affair at the start of their marriage that led to a daughter, the fact of which Rab has only recently learned of, all three relationships begin to fall apart. From here the film rushes through to the end, forgetting characters exist for twenty to thirty at a time, having characters get back together, break up, and get back together again all in the course of what feels like fifteen minutes. The film here chooses to tell not show, with characters coming to conclusions when we are never even shown them contemplating anything. The story becomes a very frustrating, clichéd mess, which is unfortunate because the film began so promisingly.

Through out the musical sequences remain high points, all of the main cast are good singers who know how to convey emotion in song. The last two numbers are great, a bittersweet rendition by the whole cast of “Letter from America”, and the final number “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” which begins slow but builds in energy until it practically bursts off the screen at the end. The actors do their best with the material given them but it is the charm and fun of these musical numbers that allow the film to mostly overcome its narrative failures. These musical sequences also provide director Dexter Fletcher with his only interesting visual moments, a silhouetted image of Yvonne and Davy during “Then I Met You” being one of them, with the rest of the film being competently albeit unimaginatively done.

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In the end, Sunshine on Leith is a film that begins strong but ultimately ends up as mostly forgettable musical. Sunshine on Leith doesn’t attempt to be more than a fun jukebox musical and at that it mostly succeeds. Beyond a few moments when it touches on the difficulty soldiers face returning from war, it never tries to reach beyond its grasp, it knows what it wants to be. It’s fun, it brought a smile to my face, and it was a joy to see these musical moments on-screen and it’s a decent way to spend an afternoon. It’s a warmly lit, well-acted, well-sung, musical and nothing more. For Sunshine on Leith that’s enough to make it a decent watch.

Rating: 6.5/10

Sunshine on Leith

Directed by Dexter Fletcher

Staring: Kevin Guthrie, George MacKay, Freya Mavor, Antonia Thomas, Peter Mullan, and Jane Horrocks.

Rated: PG

Film Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

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Spider-Man: Homecoming shouldn’t have worked. It has six(!) credited screenwriters, it has to tie into a greater established universe, it’s the child of two different major studios, and it’s the third time we’ve had a new Spider-Man franchise in fifteen years. This movie could have been a complete disaster but it’s not. In fact it’s the best Spider-Man movie since Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2 and it’s one of the most fun you’ll have at the theater this summer.

Anchored by a star making performance by Tom Holland as Spider-Man/Peter Parker, probably the best performance in the lead role of any of the Spider-Man movies, Homecoming bursts on to the screen by eschewing the bombast of other Marvel films and choosing to tell a smaller more grounded story. The villain in the film, a pitch perfect Michael Keaton as the Vulture, isn’t trying to destroy the world or conquer the universe, he’s basically just an arms dealer. However, this smaller story enables us to spend more time with Peter and learn more about him. Fresh off of his stint fighting with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Captain America: Civil War Peter is feeling neglected by Stark as he continues to attempt to juggle being a small-time neighborhood crime stopper and a high school student in Queens.

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While this idea has been previously explored in Spider-Man movies, it’s never received as in-depth a look as it does here. Director Jon Watts pulls of the difficult feat of making Peter feel like a real teenager, in a real high school, with real teenager classmates. For long stretches the film feels more like a John Hughes movie, a coming of age tale, with Peter and his best friend Ned (a hilarious Jacob Batalon) navigating crushes, detention, cliques, and teachers. This is perhaps one of the funniest Marvel movies but it rarely feels forced, the humor from each character comes differently and each quip feels organic. It helps that the film brings in ringers for some comedy including Martin Starr and Hannibal Buress as teachers, and a woefully underutilized Donald Glover as a street level criminal.

At the end of the day this is a coming of age story in the vein of many an 80’s teen film with Peter as the teen protagonist who needs to learn a life lesson and Stark as the father figure mentor, a role usually reserved for Peter’s comic book father figure Uncle Ben. In a world where it seems like every superhero movie is an origin story for someone, it’s refreshing to have Spider-Man movie where Uncle Ben is mentioned once, to have movie trust it’s audience to understand why Peter acts the way he does due to what occurs on-screen and not because we are told that “with great power comes great responsibility”. It helps that the script coupled with Holland’s expert portrayal manage to create a compelling and complex character that develops and grows through out the film.

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The few problems I have with the film come down to two things, story and direction. First off the direction by Jon Watts struggles to showcases the film’s action scenes, often making them less visually interesting than they should be.  Secondly as with most Marvel movies this film feels a bit too filled with ideas, and it’s need to touch on a variety of different point hurts it overall. It also leads to some characters getting used less than they deserve, the aforementioned Donald Glover as Aaron Davis and especially Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. Aging her down, the film imagines Aunt May as more of a single mother, an idea that sadly goes mostly unused. The romance between Peter and cool girl Liz (Laura Harrier) also could have used more time together, especially with the pivotal role it plays in the back half of the film.

What the story lacks at times in character ideas it more than makes up for with world building. We get small glimpses at the much larger Marvel world that make it seem so much richer. Vulture gets started on his life of crime due to a new government department that collects and disposes of waste and debris caused by superhero activity, we see small PSAs in Peter’s school starring Captain America, and in universe events are mentioned with one teacher referring to Cap as a “war criminal”. This real world feel also extends to Peter’s Queens, a place the film treats like a real place complete with bodegas, grumpy neighbors, trains, and people who argue about where to get the best sandwich. While the characters in the Marvel universe are great, the same can’t be said for the worlds the create, often feeling just like backdrops instead of real places. In contrast this Queens feels lived in, feels real, and unlike many a Marvel movie doesn’t feel like the background setting to an inevitable big fight.

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In the end that’s what sets this movie apart from the rest of the Marvel canon. It feels smaller, more lived in, and in doing so provides a breath of fresh air. It’s funny without feeling forced. Holland in the main role creates a someone who feels equally believable as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker, and refreshingly just loves being a hero. The villain is compelling while also being genuinely threatening. The film manages its light-hearted tone while being able to deal with serious moments and never becoming a pure comedy. There are some problems but in the end the film gives you so much to enjoy that it becomes hard to care about the problems it has. In Spider-Man: Homecoming something truly unique in the Marvel universe has been created, characters and a world worth following and exploring.

Rating: 8.5/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Directed by Jon Watts

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, and Robert Downey Jr.

Rated PG-13

 

Film Review: Excalibur

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Excalibur is the type of movie where all the men wear suits of armor or robes and all the women wear nuns habits or shear dresses. Excalibur is the type of movie where every battle scene takes place in either mud or at night. Excalibur is the type of movie where things just sort of happen. Excalibur is a movie where almost every shot is bathed in green light. Excalibur is the only good King Arthur movie. Excalibur, based on the 15th century retelling of the Arthur legend “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Thomas Mallory, is directed, produced, and co-written by John Boorman. In it Boorman, director of famed films such as Deliverance and Point Blank, tells an epic story covering the fall of Uther Pendragon and the life of his son King Arthur.

The film begins with the wizard Merlin (Nicol Wiliamson) bestowing the eponymous sword to King Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) after the latter secures an truce with the Duke of Cornwall. The truce is soon broken after due to Pendragon’s coveting of the Duke’s wife. Pendragon convinces Merlin to cast a spell allowing him to enter the castle while the Duke is away and while magically transformed to resemble the Duke beds the Duke’s wife. After the Duke is killed and Pendragon conquers his lands the Duke’s wife gives birth to a son who is claimed by Merlin as compensation for his aid of Pendragon. Later Pendragon is killed searching for Merlin and his son but before dying manages to thrust Excalibur into a stone where it will remain until the true king pulls it out. All of this happens in the first half hour of the film.

After this we are introduced to a teenage Arthur, played through his entire life span by Nigel Terry, who while at a tournament squiring for a knight pulls Excalibur from the stone and is hailed by some to be the new king. From here we follow the traditional Arthurian legends, albeit streamlined for film, pretty closely as Arthur establishes himself as the true king, recruits his knights and creates the famous round table. We see as Arthur deals with the affair between his wife Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) and Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the threat to the kingdom by Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren) and Prince Mordred (Robert Addie), and the search by his knights for the Holy Grail. As you can see Boorman has recruited a team of heavy hitters to make this film, and that’s not even counting Patrick Stewart, Ciará Hinds, and Liam Neeson as some of Arthur’s knights.

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All of this is a lot of story to cram into a two and a half hour film, and doing so leaves precious little time for characterization. While Terry does a solid job of expressing the change in Arthur from his unsure teenage years through his confident middle-age and finally to the world weary tired old-age, the other actors are given little to work with character wise. Events seem to simply occur because the story says it should, events that change the dynamic between characters such as the affair between Guinevere and Lancelot receive no foreshadowing or explanation. Ultimately, Boorman seems more interested in story rather than character and the film at times seems more like it is following a collection of moments than characters. The amount of story that Boorman wants to put into this film makes things happen quickly and never allows the story to breathe or for emotional moments to get the gravity they deserve. Perhaps it would have been better had Boorman focused on one area of the Arthurian legend instead of attempting to cover the whole thing.

For all it’s failings there is a lot that is done well. The movie looks incredible, the sets feel huge and create a moody atmosphere while the stunning costumes create memorable images on screen, most notably Prince Mordred’s all gold armor. Boorman does a beautiful job of manipulating light to demonstrate the tone of the scene and to amplify the way characters are feeling. The deliberately mythological tone of the film gives a dreamlike feel and the world it exists in feels fully fleshed out. The all-star cast do an incredible job in their roles even if occasionally they are given clunky dialogue. The shadows and fog present in battle scenes serve to create striking imagery and ground the often fantastical film by creating an ugly and dirty contrast to the idyllic images of the Camelot. Boorman clearly has a love for the source material and creates a film that does the epic nature of the Arthurian legend justice.

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Excalibur isn’t a perfect film, far from it, but it does show the power that a good retelling of the Arthurian legend has. In the hands of a strong director such as Boorman the story has the ability to become truly epic in scale and tone. Yes there are problems, heavy handed symbolism, a bloated story, and poor characterization but the beauty of the film push those problems to the back of your mind. Every few years we get a new King Arthur movie and they would do well to learn a few things from the successes and failures of Excalibur.  In Excalibur Boorman has created a flawed film that demonstrates why King Arthur still captures the imagination even after all this time.

Rating: 7/10

Excalibur (1981)

Directed by John Boorman

Starring:  Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williamson, and Gabriel Byrne.

Rated R

 

 

 

 

Film Review: Baby Driver

baby-driver-3For many of us music is an essential part of the way we live our lives. Music comes out of speakers at the mall, from street corners, from our headphones, and from our computers. It’s probably not surprising that I’m listening to music as I write this review. In a world where music can easily become part of the background it’s often refreshing to have a film push its music to the foreground.

Baby Driver, the newest film from British writer and director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), takes that idea and ramps it up to 11. Not only does the music serve to advance the story and reveal character, as it does in Wright’s previous work, in Baby Driver the music is woven into the very fabric of the film demonstrating why Wright may be our best working technical filmmaker. Wright’s spectacular direction, expert choreography,  on beat editing, and beautiful sound come together to create what is most likely his greatest technical achievement. Throughout the film music played by the eponymous main character, a mostly silent but expressive Ansel Elgort, serves not only as the soundtrack to the various heists and action scenes but also syncs up to the movement on screen of the actors and camera. Wright has previous explored this idea in a music video for “Blue Song” by the band Mint Royale and in several scenes through out his films, most notably a scene in Shaun of the Dead where a fight with zombies is synced up to “Don’t Stop Me Now”. If this sounds like a cool idea and is one you enjoy, as I did, than you’re almost guaranteed to like this film.

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But what happens in the movie itself? Baby Driver is the story of a getaway driver called Baby and follows him through a series of heists as he tries to clear his debts to Doc, played by Kevin Spacey, and tries to eventually leave his life of crime with Debora, a diner waitress played by Lily James. Through a rotating cast of criminals, including Jamie Foxx in a truly insane role, Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Hamm in one of his best film performances, Wright showcases some truly great action scenes and car chases to rival any in the past decade. These heists also serve to inform the character of Baby and his relationship to both Doc and Debora. While ultimately the plot of the film may not be anything special or new, the “one last heist” trope isn’t exactly unknown, Wright does play enough with genre conventions to make it interesting.

Where Baby Driver falls a little flat is in its characters and relationships, while Baby is a fully realized and compelling character, Debora is a flat love interest who isn’t given much back story or really a reason to fall for Baby. The same goes for several of the criminals that commit the heists, luckily Wright has enlisted great actors for theses parts with Lily James and Jon Hamm in particular saving the characters of Debora and Buddy with their considerable acting chops and charm. This is the first film written solely by Wright and perhaps it would have benefited from the having some touch ups done by his frequent co-writer Simon Pegg. That’s not to say that it’s a badly written film, far from it, Wright’s dialogue crackles with wit and provides many of the films considerable laughs. Along with Jordan Peele’s spectacular Get OutBaby Driver goes to show that there is a place for directors to mix comedy with other genre fare while still preserving the core appeal of the genre, in Get Out horror and in Baby Driver action.

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Ultimately Baby Driver is a great film, blowing past its plot and character faults with its wonderful visuals, inventive use of music, strong performances, and playful style. Wright’s use of scene transitions to further the story remains second to none and his command of the camera and frame to tell a story, add comedy, and display an action scene are exceptional. Adding music into this mix creates an incredibly memorable film that is well worth watching in theaters. It may not be Wright’s best but it’s still pretty damn good.

Rating: 8/10

Baby Driver (2017)

Directed by: Edgar Wright

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Eiza González, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx.

Rated R