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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (8/14/17) 12:10am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  <none>
Movies:  Baby Driver, The Big Sick
TV:  <none>

Baby Driver
This is Edgar Wright's stylized action-musical about a young getaway driver who just has to do one last job before he can go straight.

That said, a plot summary is kinda stupid with Baby Driver, because Baby Driver is clearly not *about* its plot.  Instead, it's *about* its effervescent musical-action sequences -- long, precisely-directed music videos where every beat of the action coincides neatly with aspects of whatever song Baby (the eponymous driver) has queued up on his old iPod at that moment.  "Bellbottoms" from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plays during a bank heist, and the shotgun blasts fire in time with the kick drum.  "Unsquare Dance" plays during a planning scene, and Baby unconsciously plays the treble piano riffs on the table in front of him.

The whole thing reaches its apotheosis early on in the film, where a simple walk to get a few coffees turns into a kind of miraculous oner set to "Harlem Shuffle", where seemingly every noise in the city harmonizes with the track, and bits and pieces of the lyrics pan by on signs, and murals, and city-infrastructure graffiti.

And all that is just breathtaking.  It has more in common with Michel Gondry or Jacques Tati than any action director, and it gives you those rare moments of "Wow, I have never watched a scene like this before."  Yes, you've seen car chases, but you haven't seen *these* car chases, filmed *this* way, to *this* aesthetic effect.  As spectacle goes, I can't think of a movie or TV show I've seen any time recently that matches Baby Driver, and it's worth seeing just for that.

But of course, spectacle doesn't make a whole movie.  As I reckon it, pure eye-intoxicating visuals can hold you for about half an hour -- so, about the length of an Animusic DVD.  After that you start getting shiftless and wondering where the story is.

Fortunately, Baby Driver does have a story.  And by and large it's a nicely-constructed story.  With only a few exceptions, every element that affects the story is introduced far earlier, making the eventual mess that Baby finds himself in feel like a payoff and not an invention.  It's not perfect -- Doc, for instance, has a crucial change of heart at the end of the film that comes out of nowhere.  And the whole thing feels strained -- like it's going to great lengths to ensure an improbably happy ending, instead of just following where the story naturally wants to go.

But on a deeper level, I just couldn't connect enough with the story emotionally to go the distance with it.  I'd argue that Baby Driver doesn't have characters.  At best, it has character types, simplified and streamlined to the point of clearly artificial austerity.  There are points where the script tries to give them interesting attributes -- like Bats's speeches about how "it's our money and we're taking it back", or Buddy's Wall Street backstory -- but those just feel like the moments when an improvisor who hasn't really been paying attention decides to endow something "interesting".  It's neat, and it's quirky, but it feels like a superficial decoration, rather than something that informs the core of the character.  In the end, these aren't so much "characters" as "balls of charisma", exciting to watch, but without nuanced personalities. 

On the one hand, that's good: in either an action film or a musical, you have less time to tell your story (because of the interruptions from action/song sequences), and nuanced and subtle character work can gum up the works, making your story so complicated you don't have time to tell it.  But on the other, it makes it damn hard to connect to the story emotionally when everyone feels like either a cipher or an archetype, the sort of character who surely has not an ounce of life outside the bounds of the film.  This is especially true of the lead couple.  I assume Baby is a character who plays flat-affect as a survival mechanism among these hardened criminals, but the actor (and I suppose the script) never presents much else going on beneath that.[1]  And Debora feels like a relatively agency-free bit of young-man wish-fulfillment, crossed with an odd 1950s fetish.

And again, on one level, this means that they aren't burdening the story with ambivalence or nuance -- the plot contraption can run full tilt, because the characters are simple and clear.  But I want to root for the heroes a lot more than I was.  So the movie was only ever as good as the action I was seeing, moment-to-moment.  And again, the action scenes were good.  But the motivations sometimes seemed thin -- with the characters so thinly drawn, you didn't often think "I know exactly what this person is going to do now".  It's more like, "Eh.  That guy did that.  Guess they're trying to set up an act-three twist."  Sometimes, as with Doc's final change of heart, it felt *painfully* thin, just out of nowhere.

That said, the plot machine is clever and efficient.  Most of the events that happen are set up clearly ahead of time.  It labors a bit to get to its happy ending, but it gets there.

All that said, I recommend the film with no reservations.  Just the way it handles action and music is worth the price of admission, and worth checking out in a theater.  If the narrative side of things gets a bit lost in the glitzy fun, well, so be it.  When all is said and done, you'll see plenty of films with good stories.  But how many musical car chases?

The Big Sick
This is a autobiographical film from stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, writer Emily V. Gordon, about how the two of them met.

I'm going to do Mr. Nanjiani a bit of a disservice for a moment, and talk about the film's producer, Judd Apatow.  This movie felt, to me, like everything I like about Judd Apatow's work.  It has a plot, but it's a fairly light plot -- the movie isn't obsessing on wowing us with crazy plot mechanics with lots of precise moving parts.  Fewer things happen, but each thing that happens is important.  And between the events, the movie has a lot of time to breathe -- it can let characters relax, banter, rant, joke, and just... be, without feeling like they have to pinball from one story point to the next to the next as quickly as possible.  My favorite work from the Apatow content machine works like that.  Also Apatovian: the inside-baseball material about the stand-up scene, which I loved.  I never made good on pursuing stand-up, but the world it depicts feels credible and often reminiscent of improv.

And the movie left out things that I don't like about Apatow productions -- no long, wearying, self-indulgent runtime, no "heeyyyy we're just bros with weeeeed" goof-off vibe, and no feeling like anybody has to go way over the top to be funny.

In a weird way, this reminded me of Freaks and Geeks, in its earnest, closely-observed awkwardness.

But all that's a lot of words about Judd Apatow, who might be only tangentially related to the film, and nothing about the film itself.

And the film fascinates me, because it's rare to see a romantic comedy that is played so naturalistically.  Usually romcoms are heightened, and the fun is that everyone is *so* pretty and *so* perfect and the problems are usually just miscommunications and the whole thing is kind of cloyingly aspirational.  The banter is polished, the costuming is on point, and everybody is likeable all the time.

So it's fun to see The Big Sick hit the same structure -- the same meet-cute, the same "impediment keeping them apart", the same shape-of-show, with its highs and lows -- and play it out in a much less heightened setting.  I'm not saying it's mumblecore or a found-footage documentary, but it is closer to Robert Altman than it is to (say) Maid in Manhattan.

And that means it can fill its cast with credible characters.  Mr. Nanjiani's natural, likeable, slightly-awkward charisma comes through on the screen.  Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are just amazing as Emily's parents, with nuanced performances that still get great laughs.[2]  It's almost like, since every character doesn't have to be constantly likeable, they can play those characters with much more specificity.  If your characters have to be nice, and can't ever be ugly, they easily become bland.

And yet again, representation matters.  It's wonderfully hyper-specific to set a movie in the Chicago Pakistani-American community, and that creates stories that feel significant that I just haven't seen before.  I haven't seen how first-generation immigrants weigh their culture's arranged marriages against America's more romantic notions.[3]  I haven't seen how Middle Eastern communities have to navigate just *existing* in the US these days.  And I haven't seen the woefully misguided one-man shows about home countries -- though frankly, that last absence is probably a mercy.

All in all, it's a solid, three-star rom-com.  It may not change your life -- although I'm told if you're Pakistani, it has an "OH GOD THIS IS MY LIFE ONSCREEN" vibe to it.  But it's funny, it's earnest, and it's filled with lovely, closely-observed detail.  Well worth your valuable time.

For next week: lots to catch up on -- At Risk, Theatre of the Unimpressed, and Colossal, for starters.  Meanwhile, I'm listening to a history of everyday life in the ancient world and figuring out what book to read next.

[1] Side note: on the other hand, Mr. Elgort is an amazing dancer in this movie.  (Apparently he was into ballet as a kid.)  "But Peter, Baby rarely dances in this movie!"  Nope, he's dancing all the damn time -- even when he's sitting down.  Compare
the opening scene of Baby Driver to this early 'test run' from Edgar Wright to see what the actor can bring to a sequence with precise, deliberate motion.
[2] I'm frankly shocked that Mr. Romano hasn't been in an Apatow comedy before.  His natural delivery and comic chops seem perfect for that world of slightly-shaggy film comedies.[2a]
[2a] Also, this is where I make yet another mental note that I *still* have to check out the tragically short-lived Men of a Certain Age.
[3] And given how much I've heard about how 'rebelling against arranged marriages' is a common trope, this is probably as much a sign that I should watch more movies from POC than it is anything about the movie itself.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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