BABY DRIVER: INTO THE GROUND

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Highly anticipated, severely overcooked, Edgar Wright’s latest feature, Baby Driver (2017) is an action, music and cringe-packed Hot Mess. Yes, it stands to be repeated, capitalized. Hot Mess. Where the film’s premise was cute in concept, it manifested as a teen-dream, driving-and-lady-porn catalogue, strung meekly together on the most tenuous of narrative threads. Edgar Wright went wrong, big time.

Baby Driver follows Baby, yes, B-A-B-Y Baby, (Ansel Elgort) a young getaway driver for criminals (bank robbers and the like). Due to childhood trauma he is a) near-mute, and therefore extremely ~cool~, and b) an excellent driver. Eventually his criminal attachments creep into his personal life and B-A-B-Y must face his gearbox demons head-on in a film climax shamefully overwritten and underperformed — enough to wonder how the film has maintained a 95% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Edgar Wright started two steps ahead on a path to success with Baby Driver. With his largely successful satirical comedies Hot Fuzz (2007) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), Wright has established a strong enough following to guarantee him at least some measure of viewership for Baby Driver. With a budget of $34 million USD, Baby Driver way outstrips the resources of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz combined. However, money has not equated engagement in this action piece. It watches like a bad 70s action-heist, complete with poor gender, ability and race representation.

The trio of women in the film are painfully loyal to the old-school trifecta of Virgin, Whore and Mother. First we have Deborah, (Lily James), the toothache-inducing love interest, who awaits Baby in her dead-end diner all day (and night), without ambitions beyond “hitting the road” (with Baby, in Baby’s car, of course). Then we have Darling (Eliza Gonzalez), whose body is so thoroughly segmented by the camera, it is a wonder we can recognize her a whole, able-bodied woman. She is the fetishized ‘bad-gal’ criminal who pops gum and looks pretty whilst wielding some heavy weaponry in the bank-robbing gang. (Don’t worry, she gets fridged at just the right time, so we don’t need to worry about her in the climax, and the antagonist has something to be vengeful over). Finally, we have the enigmatic mother-figure, Baby’s departed Mama, played fleetingly by Sky Ferreira.

These women are props for the real characters of the piece — the men — to play off and to find motivation by. Equally to using the women rather than engaging them, Baby finds martyrdom by rescuing (dumping) his wheelchair-bound mentor, Joseph (C.J. Jones), who is literally denied a voice or independence, digging Wright deeper into his trench of social insults. The plot shifts away from believability into convenience by such rapid bounds that the upbeat and music-riddled plot becomes sour and over-developed, a thin veil of detail that fails to disguise the shallow writing of a film that makes very little sense on paper. Much of Baby’s character choices are caught up in moments of confusing pride rather than self preservation, a complexity that could have been a point of interest but instead become one of confusion. His other mentor — a slightly undercooked rendition of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (they didn’t even bother subbing out Kevin Spacey to disguise it) — completely shifts character motivation in a leap that feels like it is trying to be ingenious but instead is unfeasible. The climax rolls into a fiery car park chicken game where masculinities clash and femininities get in the way, and the ‘gray’ morals of the protagonists are left unnervingly under-addressed when, at the film’s conclusion, passers-by vouch for his ‘niceness’ and general good-Person-ish-vibes in court.

Edgar Wright may have established a precedent for good comedy but Baby Driver seems more like an under-thought film that would have been written by a white, teenage boy who had too much money on his hands (“there’ll be cars, I say, Tim!” “Put your legs up on the table, dahl, the people’ll love it!”). Steer clear of this one to retain your faith in Wright.

SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Don’t bother with the cinema for this one folks, unless you want to emerge tinnitus-riddled and obnoxious, just like Baby.

INCLUSIVITY: Just the freaking worst. Jamie Foxx’s character, though prominent, is shallow, angry and damaging. Women are bodies to be cut by our gazes, and only white, able-bodied men are worthy of narrative focus.

THIS OR… Mate. Just go watch Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Also Baby Driver seems to drag itself towards Nicholas Winding Reyn’s Drive (2011), mute protagonist and all, yet the equally disturbing gender politics of that neo-noir make it difficult to recommend.)

LAURENCE ANYWAYS: Brutal Love, Brutal Metamorphoses

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Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (2012) is a true romance. There is so much meaty heart to this story that you rollick in the grip of it — the emotional stress of the characters, their faults and virtues.

Perhaps antithetically, the defining feature that sets the browser’s sights on Laurence Anyways is the journey of Laurence, into her own identity (Namely, coming to realize she is a woman, and changing her body and life to match that.) Gender transitions are a topic that is rarely delivered justice, but Dolan tackles this in the most intelligent way possible. This is not a story about Laurence, so much. Instead of making the spine of the narrative Laurence’s transition, instead, the lifeblood and pulse and motion of the film is Laurence’s relationship with long-term partner, Frederick. In watching it, the film is revealed to be equally about her journey. So, those that have selected the film for a sweeping exploration of the inner turmoil of Laurence are in for a double-whammy, delivered in full glitter-and-pop Dolan style.

Whereas another film may have chosen to summit the narrative when Laurence admits to her predilection, and focus on Frederick’s eventual climb towards acceptance, Dolan clears these waters immediately. No question, the meeting of ‘souls’ between Fred and Laurence overcomes the physical and social walls built by Laurence’s transition — they will try to stay together. We do not explore Laurence’s inner state (that, already, is decided. She knows who she is.) Instead we are carried on the tide of Frederick’s and Laurence’s overriding love, and the eventual social, emotional and physical pressures that weigh down upon them. Suzanne Clément’s performance is what makes (for this reviewer) this film so captivatingly about her — Fred as a reflection of society, and on the complexity (and construction of) gender.

Twisting towards a bittersweet conclusion, Dolan frames Fred and Laurence’s impermanent relationship. Their journey is steeped with adversity, tension, but also with a richness in beginning, middle and end, a head-on portrayal of characters being open, communicating, and still not being able to overcome their difficulties. If only all romance films could be so honestly, blatantly wholesome? Realism is not the superficial quality of Dolan’s films (his youth and vibrancy make his films feel like a HD 80s music video, jackets and all — perhaps excepting Tom at the Farm [2013]). However, Dolan’s writing is foundationally built on dialogue and characters and choices that are reflective of a normal, pressured human existence. Dolan’s predilection for Dickensian, grotesque chorus characters juxtapose with Frederick and Laurence’s nuance, throwing them into sharper relief, closer to the viewer. We are carried alongside them, and cannot condemn the priorities they each must weigh in deciding what integrities to maintain in their lives, and what to give up.

This film has so much warmth, and the circuitous conclusion reminds of the beautiful whole of the film — a story not solely about hardships, and the faults of our humanity, but instead a celebration of the ever-changing and transience of L-O-V-E, the Big Kahuna, the wave that surges, then fades.

GET OUT: Eyes Without a Race

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Jordan Peel’s horror debut, Get Out (2016), is a sly fox of a film. Through a tightly wound, narrow-focus narrative, the film twists genre, humor and trope to explore the central thread of race identity in modern America.

Retrospective-minded films, (e.g. 12 Years A Slave [Steve McQueen, 2013], Hidden Figures [Theodore Melfi, 2016]) perform the crucial retelling of histories previously lost, or shunted aside. However, Get Out has done something equally important. The film is inextricably steeped in old-world western prejudice, typified by H.P. Lovecraft and the backwater-histories of the U.S.A., the source of the more grotesque, Weird horror in the film. That being said, the glowing seed at the center of these Old World horrors are the modern, white characters that occupy those spaces, and, crucially, continue to utilize them.

Peel does not beat around the bush — we know how this story ends, regardless of whether or not protagonist Chris will survive the elements, because we already know the true vein of the antagonists. It was strategic call by Peele (or his advertisers) in showing the twist of the film in the trailer. We are not a blind audience, waiting to for the hidden twist (“I guess they actually are racist…”). Especially this new iteration — all too close to home — of racism that compensates to extremes, furthering oppression and insult. Instead we know the nature of this story — we are in it for the cathartic pleasure of the win. Which we hope Chris will achieve, in the end. Get Out is therefore the kind of horror that we ride along with willingly — we enjoy the scares.

Christos Tsiolkas’ Saturday Paper review expressed dissatisfaction with Get Out, partially because he felt the film failed at being a “horror” film. But when examined structurally, Get Out hits the beats of horror genre with a precise, decisive accuracy and rhythm. Violence and tension build with clockwork progress, and, thus, the film rollicks along its tracks towards an inevitable conclusion. Instead, perhaps, the dissatisfaction of the old-school horror fan arises from the playful tone of the film — there is a argumentative, challenging skew to the storytelling and characters that tugs us back out of the immediate threats, and provokes contemplation. This is the unique quality of Get Out. This film does not bite off too much — it doesn’t try to explore every sordid cranny of race politics in America — but instead employs a small-scale story to playfully (and weightily) twist a accusatory finger at the still-present and evolving racism of the modern West.

Now Peele has set his sights on making a series-adaptation of Matt Ruff’s book, Lovecraft Country (2016). Ruff’s Weird fiction narrative tries to compensate for years of overlooked racism in the speculative fiction works of the past. However, the story is fragmented and therefore falls short of expressing the complex body politics of race in old-world (and new world) horror. There also the added complication of the author’s own perspective/projections of experience, as a white author seeking to express a perspective very distant from his own experience. However, it is hard to scrub out a grain of hope for up and comer Peele’s adaptation. Hopefully genre will continue to serve as a structural window through which we can explore new territories.

Get Out’s obsequious antagonists hint that prejudice is not fading, but is instead insidiously creeping into new modes of survival. Here, the racial bias expressed in old-world, ‘monstrous’ horror (so often about the unknown “Other”, dark-fleshed and therefore ‘less-human’) is folded back on itself. The not-so-subtle racial sentiments of the Lovecraftian era are thrown into the spotlight, and they make you want to wince away. There is a bittersweet mix of embarrassment, humor and fear in the film — it forces an uncomfortable but important series of self-examinations. As a result, Get Out performs the crucial work of retelling history, but equally, illuminating the current, more insidious race-climate of the West, and reminds us that prejudice does not slip away, but evolve.

BURIAL RITES, HANNAH KENT: BLEAK, VERGING ON BLANK

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Burial Rites (2013) is the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent (film rumoured). The novel seeks to retell the ‘true’ story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was accused of acting in the murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. A story that seeks to reflect bleak narrative in bleak setting, the retelling Kent chooses to built for Agnes is void of much hope, instead serving as a window-in-time to show the unique paltry of Icelandic life, and to reveal Kent’s depth of research, living in Iceland.

Judging from Goodreads reviews, (by majority, glowing 4 and 5 stars), found the ‘stark’ nature of this book (desolate scenes, hopelessness and hate) beautiful or alluring, immersive even, yet there was an equal bleakness manifest in the characters. In Burial Rites, events roil within the realms of human control, yet nobody seeks to impact their progress. People never attempt change their stations in life. The Reverend fails to fulfill his role, unable to theologically save or comfort Agnes. The family at Kornsa fail to take any action to defend Agnes’ innocence, though they make it clear her looming execution is unjust. Nathan (and Agnes) know Fridrik Sigurdsson is violent and scheming, yet nobody takes defensive measures against him. These characters are victims of the game, rather than players — perhaps a technique intended to reflect the ‘truth’ of Agnes’ story, but makes for frustrating reading. Won’t the characters just do something?

Most overridingly, Agnes’ retelling paints her as a passive character who is hopelessly overrun by romance, beyond reason or self-preservation. Her love for Natan cripples her sensibility, though her character is supposedly pragmatic and independent. This is a portrayal that can be only partially understood in the chosen context (1829, Iceland), where women’s lives were likely oppressive and harsh beyond comprehension, and choices were limited. However, Agnes’ portrayal feeds back damagingly into the ‘women’s fiction’ genre, into which this book tends to fall, whether justifiably or not. One cannot accept protagonists who are shaped and built only by their relationships to men without a constructive premise linked to this fallacy. Equally frustrating, this is a portrayal of Agnes that Kent has actively constructed. In the book’s acknowledgements, Kent clarifies that Agnes has had many different ‘versions’ or characteristics, (a witch, a wench, an exploited worker etc.), a palimpsest of folk and historical retellings (and superstitions). To choose this passive, ‘victimly’ portrayal from that plethora of ‘Agnesses’ seems an odd choice. It would have been preferable to read of a woman who has independent thoughts, goals, and interests, but perhaps that is romantic of me, and goes against the grain of reality for a poverty-stricken woman in 1800s Iceland. Agnes’ thoughts and reputation seem at odds with her quiet, subservient mask in the Kornsa household. The Icelandic superstitions that are tangled up in gender and cultural roles (especially those of women) seemed to be overlooked for the sake of keeping the book ‘sparse’. It seems the meat of interest in the narrative would be the rich practical lives of rural Icelanders of the time, and the accompanying, crippling social mores that hem these Icelanders in. These social conventions should be the thing to make Agnes’ unjust execution into an unstoppable steam train of progress, rather than a slow-burning fall into apathetic, apologetic, anemic characters, who do nothing to right the course of action in the narrative.

Ultimately, the story has points for readability and an ‘honestly’ in Kent’s style, but Burial Rites leaves too many threads undone, and too many opportunities missed, to feel the story was ever done justice.

OLD BOY: PERCEPTION IS TORTURE

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K-Pop lies. Where is the bubble-gum sweet, diamante riddled Korea SBS promised?

Park Chan-wook’s feature Old Boy (2003) gently nudges at your brain, gets you emotionally invested, then takes that investment, rips it out through your belly and stuffs them back down your throat, making you want to hurl. This is a film that sews you into your seat and then holds your eyes open à la Burgess, as if to tell the viewer — see? See what happens when you trust your perception?

Old Boy is a gritty romp that follows Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), who is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years. His captor and purpose are unknown, until Dae-Su is finally released. The film charts his journey to vengeance.

In many ways, on paper Old Boy follows the tracks of old romp ’n’ stomp vengeance plotlines. That being said, Chan-wook manipulates the storytelling, boxing in the viewer, and making it into a tool for humiliation, disgust and re-visitations. The limited window he provides us on events (through the camera), crucially, limits our knowledge of events (what he lets us see), and forces us into a role so partisan, and generic, we remain blind to the coming events. He carefully exploits the South-Korean sensibilities of family, recall and obligation to exploit the emotional vulnerability of characters (and, by proxy us).

As the story unfurls, the grit and gore of the story, (reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer [2013] — it has a similar end-of-times ‘timbre’ to it’s imagery, a film on which Chan-wook was a co-producer) force us to take shelter in the small, genuine relationships of the plot. We find hope in the new life that Dae-Su will be able to forge once his vengeance has been enacted, and in the romance between he and the bright sushi chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung). But we have been backed onto the emotional ropes unconsciously, and by Chan-wook’s pedantic design. Idiosyncrasies of character get us invested, even in the antagonist, a pacemaker that is a ticking time-bomb — dialogue and motivation are real — and they give us enough loft above the grit of the plot to carry us along on the journey. So when Chan-wook’s writing cracks the whip and, as is the aspect ratio widens, we then see the larger net of writing used to enrapture us.

(This film is worth watching without knowing too much. Forgive a reviewer for skating around the more significant turns of plot. Just watch the film.)

It is impressive to see the raw and gaudy violence of Dae-Su’s revenge interwoven with a voyeur’s torture that borders on the physical — we, as viewers, are condemned by the film’s events. We have unwittingly condoned them by watching. As an exemplary filmic form of good ol’ emotional manipulation, Old Boy refreshes our faith in film to rain blows of affect upon not only our emotion, but our bodies too. It is truly a deep-end foray into South Korean Cinema, if you are similarly uniformed as myself. Go for it.

SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Big screen, if possible. Fellow audience member reacts are crucial.

INCLUSIVITY: Mi-do remains the only main female character in the story, and is readily shunted aside in the climactic moments of the film. This remains is a male-centric, status-riven, Asia-centric story. Not many points for inclusivity, yet it’s a tightly wound, close-knit story about family, so racial homogeneity is to be expected.

WATCH WITH: …Not your family.

UNA: HOW DO WE TELL THESE STORIES?

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Australian director Benedict Andrews’ debut feature, Una (2016), tackles no small issue. Based on David Harrower’s play, Blackbird (2005), the film follows Una (Rooney Mara) as she confronts her abuser, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) fifteen years later. (He was 40, she was 13). Unfolding almost entirely in a work break room, this story falls short of unpacking a nuanced topic, and equally fails to highlight the objective damages of the story. As a result, it is a struggle to respect the bolder revelations of the film, which seem to fetishize and make spectacle out of something that should emphasize the tragedy and abuse of the characters’ history.

The film feels confined, like a theatrical production, set largely in the work break room, a space one can imagine being pinned within as an audience member, forced into observation and complicity with Una and Ray’s interactions. In Una, empathy lilts towards damage, as we find ourselves growing closer to our Humbertian antagonist, Ray. Una is largely portrayed as a cunning, vengeance-seeking woman (“you’re sick, you need help,” Ray says multiple times. This statement may be true, but it does not serve to pinpoint him as the source of these damages, of Una’s ‘sickness’). These portrayals twist us perpetually away from the truth of the situation.

The Guardian’s review of Una suggested the film portrayed the protagonist as “just another crazy woman,” an agreeable observation, to some extent — not because of Una’s portrayal, but because of the lack of clarity around Ray’s truth: he is a child sexual abuser, yet that seems to become clouded by the constructed ‘depth’ of he and Una’s relationship.

These faults addressed, it is hard to deny the emotional toil the film makes the viewer endure. From the moment Una nervously pukes in the garden bed outside Ray’s work, to the closing credits, one can feel a distant echo of her same nausea. The flashbacks and retellings of Una and Ray’s history emotionally ‘lilt’ us towards sympathy, empathy, and cloud the truth of their relationship, whilst we as viewers are forced constantly to push against this tide of emotion, and remain objective. On paper, there is no obscurity to Ray’s abuse of Una, yet the proximity and emotional ‘steepage’ to their interactions as adult muddy this clarity. The film chooses to explore a serious topic, and in doing so, has obligated itself to do it properly. Anything less is damaging. One is left asking (of many films on topics as challenging as this one): Does the import of this story justify the means of telling?

Ben Mendelssohn was interviewed after the screening, and on his character Ray, he said, no ambiguity about it, “he is full of shit.”

SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Small screen. Nothing particularly creative about this storytelling. The dialogue and performances slip a little in the peripheral scenes, but Mara and Mendelssohn’s deliveries make the hefty weight of this story believable.

INCLUSIVITY: Two people and one severely underused side role (Riz Ahmed)…not so good.

THIS OR FESTEN (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998)? Ultimately, this film is stylistically and creatively uninteresting — the cameras, the set, the construction exists purely to carry the story. Go for Vinterberg, Festen or The Hunt (2012), which both address the central problems of doubt and ambiguity head on, something Una fails to do.

DONNA TARTT’S ‘THE LITTLE FRIEND’: OUROBOROS WITHOUT A SPINE

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Donna Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend (2002), seems to float above itself. While the characters, world and turns of scene are finely — almost baroquely — wrought, the oomph, or the motivating forces behind characters seem to fade into obscurity, leaving the narrative to roll lazily to a halt, rather than finding finality.

The Little Friend follows Harriet, twelve years old (twelve birthdays beyond her own years, it seems), who plans to track down and punish her brother’s murderer. In the vein of Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005) and Enid Blyton’s old Fantastic Five stories, this is a school-holidays adventure, with a hefty dose of engine-oil and amphetamines. Here, the old-school ‘robbers’ are meth-addled, snake-handling preachers, and instead of a country farm, the characters dodge between sweaty suburbia and cicada-riddled forests. The stakes are higher, and the protagonists — though still reigned in by the naiveté of youth — have a bravery and perception beyond their years.

Harriet’s quest leads us through a labyrinthine retelling of her family history. Little Robin, Harriet’s younger brother, was murdered, the killer left un-captured, the motivation unknown still. Harriet, crippled by her her family’s persistent patronization of her, longs to punish her brother’s killer, who she sees to be the progenitor of her familial misery. Robin’s death is the initial knot that gathers and tangles the Cleve family’s increasingly frayed and dysfunctional parts, and Tartt builds a rich image of Harriet’s life, and the Mississippi town she lives in.

“There was a tickle of mystery about it still, something sad a foreign, like rotted forests or woodsmoke in autumn; it was the old dark smell of plantation armoires, of Tribulation, of the very past.” (p. 123)

As in Tartt’s previous work, The Secret History (1992), the details of setting become engrossing, keep the reader turning pages. Tartt’s descritive reach seems to reach endlessly beyond the sightline of the more humble narrative path she follows. In The Little Friend, it is likely because these details are imbued (even if only distantly) with some of the broader sweeps of Southern Mythology that give this story the breadth of a Grecian tragedy, interwoven with the grottiness of drug-dealers and religious faith that lend the narrative a greater sense of depth than is perhaps actually present.

That said, these details arise from a plot that seems to roll forward without any motivating force. Harriet affixes her vengeful gaze on a suspect, but he is selected using little to no evidence. This could have been a more significant fallacy of Harriet’s journey, yet it remains unexplored, and therefore leaves her drive for revenge diffuse and purposeless. Many Goodreads reviews express frustration at Tartt’s choice not to reveal Robin’s murderer. Again, this choice — leaving us hanging, enfuriated — could have been a powerful device to make us examine the story, but instead we are left wondering why Harriet (or anyone) went on this journey at all, as we were left without even a hint at the possible motivation forRobin’s murder.

This book was engaging, and can be read it very quickly (even without taking into consideration the motivating factor of being cooped up on your parents’ boat with few other places to escape to…). That said, the unfinished Grecian Tragedy of Harriet’s journey — the spine from which these intricacies of character and place extend — leaves the reader feeling hollow.

WHERE TO READ: This (as with the Famous Five series and any other rollicking, back-waters-ish stories) is excellent when read well out of the city, in somewhere where you can walk near trees and find rusted car parts…

INCLUSIVITY: Addresses a nuanced (but deeply exploitative) relationship with a house worker, Ida Rhew. The relationship illustrates the evolving and ever-present slavery of African-Americans.

THIS OR “The Secret History”. Both. This woman writes characters to admire, with guts and intelligence. Brave (and inadvertently cool) to a fault. If you get tugged along by mysteries and by absorbing worlds, follow Tartt.

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