“Baby Driver”–For Millennials

Baby Driver movie review
[Originally published for Blog Critics, July 3, 2017]

The highly praised feature film Baby Driver, starring newcomer Ansel Elgort as Baby, tells the story of a millenial car driver getting in and out of trouble while trying to capture the love of his life. Baby drives fast and furiously, shifting gears and tapping tunes he hears on this iPod (yes, an iPod) on his steering wheel while waitng for the criminal types he chauffeurs around to complete their heists–robbing banks and the post office.

Baby’s boss, Doc, (the incomparable Kevin Spacey in a role not deserving of his talent) is owed a debt from Baby, providing the motivation for the young getaway driver’s awful choices in job options and companions. One of the criminals, Buddy, (played by Jon Hamm, again, a waste of this actor’s abilities), seems to empathize with Baby at times, instead of humiliating him. A psychopathological maniac, Bats (Jamie Foxx, what were you thinking?), provides much of the gratuitous gore. A kindly foster father (played by C J Jones) offers one of the only heartbeats indicating humanity.

Baby Driver is first and foremost, about, sensational car chases and these are some of the most choreographed this viewer has ever seen. The cars rev up to mostly 70’s music with preposterous outcomes and perfect timing for comic effect. Furthermore, Baby has tinnitus, which he drowns out with his iPod, providing killer timing and the graceful rhythms his body dances to while walking, weaving in and out of the crowd as if driving on the streets of Atlanta.

A car-centric crime drama, with the actors timing their movements to the soundtrack, Baby Driver features constant, often glamorized violence. There are several mass shootings, with machine-gun deaths choreographed to music. You’ll also see several car accidents with splintering glass and bloody dead bodies, sudden deaths, blood, and gore. Many of the characters eventually die sudden, terrible deaths. Female characters are stereotypes, ogled by both the characters and the camera.

While this movie will continue to receive accolades and become a box office hit (released June 28), its target demographic–millennial guys–may be sufficient to gather some award nominations. The main actor, Ansel Elgort, holds the viewer’s attention, a babyfaced Patrick Swayze, who will almost certainly have more challenging roles offered in the future. Similar to “Drive”, Baby Driver has less story and convincing dialog. I would not recommend this one to non-millennial viewers. We are the wrong demographic.

 

The Siege at Jadotville–The Luck of the Irish

The Siege at Jadotville movie

Based on true events, The Siege at Jadotville (a Netflix original) is a shocking reenactment of a heroic battle that was meticulously covered up for over 40 years. In 1961 Dag Hammarskjold, United Nations Secretary General, sent 150 Irish Defence Forces, non-combatant peace keepers, to defend the fledgling secessionist state of Katanga (later to be part of the Republic of the Congo) against an overwhelming contingent of ex-Foreign Legion French and Katangese mercenaries. Tshombe (Katanga’s leader) had been hired by powerful international mining companies in Jadotville to send mercenaries to defend their interests.   En route to negotiate cease-fire conditions between the UN and the mercenary contingent, Hammarskjold dies in an airplane crash. The Siege at Jadotville retells the against-all-odds battle by inexperienced, ill-equipped Irish troops and the aftermath. Political posturing from both the UN and the mining corporations begin shortly thereafter.

Reminiscent in action scenes of the opening of Saving Private Ryan, The Siege at Jadotville thankfully places a bit less emphasis on the bloodshed.  The ensemble cast is convincing as untested army soldiers thrown into a literal baptism by fire.

The pace of the story is tightly written and the action sequences are superb, with a suspenseful arc of hope, determination, frustration, despair and resolution.  With superb cinematography, The Siege at Jadotville is a well-crafted sleeper of a war film, with an untold history lesson for all of us.

Note: Neither the UN nor Ireland acknowledged the battle until a review in 2004 by the Irish Minister of Defence at the insistence of retired Jadotville veterans who had been fighting for recognition ever since the battle. It wasn’t until 2016 that the Irish government awarded a Presidential Unit Citation to “A” Company,[ the first in Ireland’s history, to the veterans of Jadotville.

“The Salt of the Earth” (2014) –Drawing with Light

Salgado's Iguana Hand
Iguana Marina

Sebastiao Salgado, the renowned Brazilian sociopolitical photographer,  is the subject of this emotionally harrowing documentary. The viewer witnesses photographs of heartbreaking gravity and human agony, both unprecedented and breathtaking. The 2014 Academy Award nominated The Salt of the Earth reveals Salgado’s masterpieces of portraiture, political journalism, landscape, and animals in a way that evokes strong feelings. A display of Ansel Adams this is not!

Perhaps the most startling experience in watching The Salt of the Earth is the beauty that is embedded in the tragic and cruel situations of his subjects. Here we see the evidence of his emotional response to what he photographs and frame by frame, in mostly black and white photos. Each black and white photograph is a meditation, not a representation and Salgado is keenly aware of this as he narrates each photographic series: “Workers”, “Exodus”, “Genesis”, and others.

The majority of The Salt of the Earth is extremely painful to watch–a testimony to violence, genocide, and holocausts beyond even the most grotesque of imaginations. Deeply affecting, this documentary visualizes the inhumane, abject conditions that much of the world’s population, particularly women and children, endure. The Salt of the Earth is a must-see. Courageous and compassionate, Salgado explains his photographs in elegant poetic form: “Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a tale of madness.” With soulful voice and unbelievably sad eyes, he is unflinching in reporting on the ugliness of human existence but also the beauty of those struggling to survive. The underbelly of human behavior is powerfully depicted, mostly in stark monochromatic photos, with the support of the extraordinary director Wim Wenders (of “Buena Vista Social Club” and “End of Violence” fame).

Blind Woman of Mali
Blind Woman of Mali

Anyone watching The Salt of the Earth will wonder how Salgado survived the horrors of what he witnessed,– the heart of darkness,– with his soul intact. “We humans are terrible animals” he says at one point. He himself confesses there were times when all he did was sob throughout the night. Photographing war and genocide may have brought Salgado to the edge of despair and insanity, but recently his projects have been redirected to renewing and restoring the planet.

Salgado is a living testimony to how art can be witness to truth.  His photographs and experience, his “drawings in light”, The Salt of the Earth is unforgettable. You cannot but be moved by this film!

Note:  Available on Netflix

 

Sense of an Ending (2017) –Remembrance of Things Past

 

Sense of an Ending movie
Based on Julian Barnes’s novel

 

Sense of an Ending works better on the page than The Sense of an Ending works on the screen. Novels are mental and films are visual and Julian Barnes’s 2011 Man Booker Prize novel, Sense of an Ending, has been acclaimed for elegance, incisiveness and for the powerful unreliable memory of the main character. The Sense of an Ending (directed by Ritesh Batra, also director of the delightful Lunchbox) is a dramatic adaptation of the novel. It glides back and forth in time as we view the disconnected pieces of a previously unexamined life and the exploration of memory’s role in constructing one’s identity.

Tony Armstrong (a subtle performance by Jim Broadbent) becomes obsessed with his college days, after he is bequeathed his best friend’s diary The problem is that the diary is in the possession of his old girl friend Victoria (Charlotte Rampling). She refuses to hand it over. Now a late sixty-something semi-retired shop keeper, Tony’s days are a  meandering in a foggy haze of opaque memory.

A mystery begins to unfold, literally, in Tony’s rearview mirror and in his present, as he searches for answers concerning Adrian’s diary. What follows is the destruction of self-identity, friendship, and one’s life story caused by a letter saved from the past.

Some of the most crucial details in character and plot are left to the viewer to determine, and the motivation, regret, and loss of one’s own story are not available to the viewer. Tantalizing clues as to what impact the letter had are sorely lacking.

We all remember an event differently. We’re raised by the same parents, with the same siblings but we still have had different childhoods. Older people have more of a past than the young, so their memories are full of memories of memories–and of ways to construct versions of themselves they feel comfortable with. And how do the things that we forget, choose to leave out or just misremember affect how we view our past, our present, ourselves?

Broadbent tries heroically to suggest his longing to make things right before decrepitude and dying set in–to have the life he chooses to remember, but Sense of an Ending left this viewer wanting more of the interior life–the quiet catastrophe– of this flawed, unlikable character. How does an older self pass judgment on the younger version? Perhaps psychological narratives like Sense of an Ending demand too much from cinematic presentation, visual scenes of the reflection of the mind.