Review of “Baby Driver”

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a quiet young man who listens to music constantly through his iPod to drown out the tinnitus that has plagued him since he was in a car accident as a child. That accident also left him an orphan as both is parents died in the crash. Baby has been the foster son of Joseph (CJ Jones) for many years but Joseph, who is deaf, is confined to a wheelchair and now Baby takes care of him. Baby has a job as a driver but it’s not like being a chauffeur: Baby is the wheel man for a rotating group of bank robbers led by Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby stole a car of Doc’s several years prior that was filled with expensive “merchandise.” Baby dumped the car after his joy ride but Doc, who had watched the whole thing, held him responsible for the value of the merchandise lost in the theft. Baby has been the getaway driver for all the jobs Doc has masterminded since they met. Baby gets an equal share of the take but Doc keeps most of it giving Baby a tiny fraction to live on. Doc never uses the same crew twice on a job and has recently brought in Bats (Jamie Foxx) for what may be their biggest job yet. Bats is unstable and violent, willing to kill at the drop of a hat, and he rubs the rest of the crews the wrong way. Baby has recently met Deborah (Lily James), a waitress at the diner he frequents and he is falling in love. They share a love of music and a desire to leave their lives behind for the open road. Baby thought his days of driving for Doc were over but he gets pulled back in (thanks to threats on the lives of everyone he loves) for one more job. Now Baby is having more and more trouble keeping his professional life from jeopardizing the lives of those he loves.

“Baby Driver” is a rare original idea in a summer of reboots, sequels and massive franchise films and it’s from a director that nearly helmed “Ant-Man.” Edgar Wright, the creative mind behind the “Cornetto Trilogy” of “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End” along with the underappreciated “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” has given audiences a refreshing treat in a summer of warmed-over ideas and CGI-heavy extravaganzas. If only more studios and filmmakers would be willing to take a chance on small stories of fairly regular people trapped in extraordinary circumstances there might be more tickets sold and more money in their pockets. Of course, not all filmmakers have a mind as creative at Edgar Wright but we are lucky he found a studio willing to take a chance on his vision.

Ansel Elgort is a vision to behold playing Baby. The character is so laid back he’s practically lying down: but Baby is far more in tune with what’s going on around him than many believe and he truly comes alive behind the wheel. Elgort finds the perfect balance of calm and energy for Baby. He never raises much above a low boil even when he has a gun shoved in his face. Baby can calculate what needs to be done to avoid a police roadblock and an oncoming car without breaking a sweat or losing an earbud. It’s a performance many actors could not have believably pulled off but Elgort does it with ease. He’s brilliant in the role.

While also brilliant, Jamie Foxx is scary as the unstable Bats. His intense stare and hair-trigger temper make Bats a dangerous man to be around and Foxx is able to bring a level of menace and unpredictability to the role that few could. Watching the film I was never quite sure which way Bats would go in any situation and that made the scenes he’s in incredibly powerful to watch. It would not surprise me to see Foxx nominated for a supporting actor award next year.

While the trailers have emphasized the car stunts in the movie, aside from the opening chase there aren’t really that many in the film; but that chase has a level of beauty and precision other films will feel the need to match. It has the kind of stunts that the “Fast and the Furious” films wish they could do but now must have cars flying over mountains and blasting through buildings. There are a couple more car chases in “Baby Driver” but they are more of the ram and slam variety where the opening stunt series is like watching a surgeon remove a tumor from a very delicate part of the brain. It is an amazing opening sequence.

“Baby Driver” is a movie where the soundtrack is a character unto itself. Comprised of 30 songs ranging in style from jazz to hip-hop, the music is what Baby is listening to as he drives. It is a window into his mind and personality. It conveys the emotion of the scene and the people in it. It takes over for exposition where none is needed. The movie is edited to, and the characters move in time with, the music that is constantly playing through Baby’s earbuds or the speakers in his car. I’m not sure they give awards for that kind of thing but if they do, “Baby Driver” is a shoe-in to take home the trophy.

“Baby Driver” is rated R for violence and language throughout. There are numerous shootings, some bloodier than others. We see a character hit by a car and thrown into the air then run over again. A character is shown impaled on metal rods after a car crash. There are other acts of violence in the film as well. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

Edgar Wright has been working to get “Baby Driver” made for over 20 years. His dismissal from the director’s chair for Marvel’s “Ant-Man” may have been a blessing in disguise as it gave Wright the incentive to make a movie the way he wanted to make it and the result is a music and thrill-filled film that should be viewed twice just to catch all the little touches the director has thrown in to add an extra dash of flavor to an already tasty bit of filmmaking.

“Baby Driver” gets five stars.

This week the much anticipated “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the only film in wide release and that’s what I’ll see and review:

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Reviews of “Hail, Caesar!” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

Hail, Caesar!

Movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of Communist script writers who feel they are undercompensated for their work. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works for the studio as a “fixer” who tries to keep movie production running smoothly by taking care of any problems for the actors and directors. Mannix gets a ransom note asking for $100,000 for the return of Whitlock. Whitlock is the star of a big-budget Roman Empire film called “Hail, Caesar: The Story of the Christ” and is needed back on set as quickly as possible. He also wants to keep Whitlock’s disappearance out of the two gossip columns written by feuding twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). Mannix is also dealing with the pregnancy of unwed starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and monosyllabic cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) being shoehorned into an upscale costume drama much to the chagrin of director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). As if this wasn’t enough, Mannix is also considering a lucrative job offer from aircraft manufacturer Lockheed and is also trying to quit smoking.

Joel and Ethan Coen are the talented writers, directors, editors and producers behind some of the best movies in history (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Raising Arizona,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “The Big Lebowski,” “True Grit” to name a few). They have also given us some interesting films with unique characters and a skewed view of the world. These films aren’t quite great but are certainly worth a look. Where “Hail, Caesar” falls on the list from worst to first will probably require some time to decide and may depend on your mood when you see it but, for me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of their best efforts.

Right off the bat, you know you’re watching a Coen Brothers movie. The look of the sets, the way the characters are filmed and the often amped up energy between the actors are all signatures of a Coen Brothers joint, especially one of their lighter films. Adding to the mood is the utter self-absorption of some of the movie’s characters. They cannot see past their own wants, needs and desires to consider all the trouble they are causing. They need someone like Mannix to take care of the problems they are ill equipped to handle or blindly stumble upon. The film, set in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, gives the audience a peek behind scrubbed clean facades and into the dirty lives of Hollywood stars from the era. Reading a little of Hollywood history shows there were plenty of pregnancies, closeted gays and lesbians, and substance abuse to cover up keeping the real versions of Eddie Mannix busy. Watching the small emergencies and major catastrophes Mannix deals with fill his day made me wonder if what he does only enables the actors and directors bad decision making. Of course, the answer is “yes” since he was hired by the studio to keep the actors and directors working, on schedule and within budget.

Watching Mannix work is probably the most interesting thing about “Hail, Caesar!” making the subplot about the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock almost an afterthought. Sadly, that part of the story is written that way as well. There is a great deal of Communist ideology spewed by the group of writers holed up at a beachside bungalow. Granted, it’s all done in a friendly fashion, leading to a case of Stockholm syndrome for Whitlock. Nothing about this group is terribly interesting aside from the petty sniping between members. I suppose I expected a more aggressive gang hoping to convert Whitlock as a vocal and public advocate for their cause. Instead, Whitlock doesn’t really get it and is treated like the slow cousin at the family reunion with everyone just nodding and smiling as he tries to play along. Pretty much everything at the beach house feels like filler and tends to bring the movie to a bit of a narrative stop.

Far more entertaining are the films within the film being filmed. A water ballet featuring Johansson’s pregnant DeeAnna Moran in a mermaid costume and a big dance number with Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney leading a group of sailors tap dancing on tables at a bar the night before they ship out contain dazzling visuals, impressive choreography and catchy tunes. I almost wish they had just made a movie that stitched these scenes together with a Hollywood backlot story about Eddie Mannix and left the Communist kidnapping plot out. Even watching Clooney chew the scenery in the sword and sandals epic his character is filming beats anything that happens after his kidnapping. It’s the dichotomy between what Hollywood is trying to sell us and what this movie is trying to show us about the real world that drags the film down a peg or two. It’s far from awful but I could have used a bit more screwball action and a lot less Communist manifesto.

“Hail, Caesar!” is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. The suggestive content is very mild and hardly noticeable. Smoking is common throughout the film.

One of my favorite Coen Brothers movies is “Raising Arizona.” It is goofy and sweet and features some very memorable characters. From time to time, for no reason, my wife will just suddenly announce, “Short of Edwina. Turn to the right!” which is a line Holly Hunter’s character says on her first meeting with Nic Cage. “Raising Arizona” has more memorable lines. Perhaps that’s what “Hail, Caesar!” lacks…scenes and dialog that burrow into your brain and pop up for no particular reason in conversation. While that isn’t a requirement for a great movie, it does help.

“Hail, Caesar!” gets four guitars.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The Bennet family lives on a nice estate in the English countryside. The five Bennet daughters have all been schooled in Chinese martial arts as all good young women should be in a land plagued by a zombie scourge. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) meets and takes an instant dislike to Col. Darcy (Sam Riley), a well-known zombie killer, at a reception at the home of Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth). Mr. Bingley sees Elizabeth’s sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) and is instantly smitten, making Jane’s mother, Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips), quite happy as she hopes to marry her daughters off to wealthy families as her own is not as financially secure as she would like. The zombie plague is beginning to overrun most of London’s defenses and Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston) is brought in to improve them. Darcy and Wickham have a strained history going back several years that Wickham blames on Darcy. This drives a further wedge between Darcy and Elizabeth.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” henceforth to be referred to as “PPZ,” is a brilliant idea on paper. The juxtaposition between the mannered and stuffy British upper class and the mindless hunger of zombies should have been a no brainer (pardon the expression). Sadly, this theatrical representation of a genre mashup is about as dry and dull as a British costume drama without the ravenous undead.

“PPZ” isn’t funny, isn’t scary and isn’t otherwise much of anything. It seems to have taken more of the tone of the original Jane Austen work and left any of the excitement of Seth Grahame-Smith’s modification on the page. While there are moments when Austen’s words are said during a fight scene between two characters and that does provide some visual humor it doesn’t translate into actual laughs. Perhaps Grahame-Smith’s book wasn’t intended to be funny; however, if you want a film like this to appeal to a broad audience, it needs some laughs that aren’t the polite chuckles this film only occasionally provides.

The movie isn’t scary in the least. These zombies still possess some of their former intelligence and can maintain their composure at least until they consume human brains. After they get their first taste of grey matter, they become ravenous and aggressive. The world of 19th Century England dealing with zombies is somewhat interesting and the modified history, construction of a massive wall and deep moat to block zombie progress, is a nice touch of background; but it doesn’t do much to carry the story past the opening credits.

I suppose the filmmakers were hoping to attract fans of Austen’s work AND people that enjoy “The Walking Dead.” The Venn diagram of those two audiences doesn’t have a great deal of overlap and you need an audience big enough to justify making the sequel suggested in the film’s closing image. Considering the anemic opening weekend box office, a second film seems unlikely.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is rated PG-13 for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material. We see a few zombie heads explode when they are shot. An arm is severed and zombies often appear to have severe injuries to their faces. We also see some corpses with large holes in the tops of their heads and their brains removed. Suggestive material is limited to the occasional sight of the tops of a heaving bosom.

When I heard “PPZ” was being made I was actually a little excited to see it. I believed it might be possible to turn a one-note premise into an entertaining movie. Sadly, I was wrong. With such a serious tone and ignoring its humorous potential, “PPZ” is largely a lifeless mess.

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” gets two stars out of five.

This week, comic book fans get what could be a cinematic Valentine’s card from a much anticipated character. There is also a comedy about dating and a revisit from Blue Steel! I’ll see and review at least one of these films.


How to be Single—

Zoolander 2—

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