Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

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Baby Driver, directed by Edgar Wright (2017).

Score: extraordinary.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a melomaniac getaway driver who suffers from tinnitus. He lives with his deaf foster father Joe (CJ Jones) and meets the girl of his dreams (Lily James), but as much as he wants to turn to an honest life once he has paid off his mentor in crime Doc (Kevin Spacey), his godfather won’t let him make this heist the last one.

Much has been said about Wright’s visual style, and his evolution continues with Baby driver. He had already worked with scenes set to significant music, but his latest movie takes it to a whole new level. From the opening sequence, Baby is established as a character for whom life has a soundtrack, and every moment must be set to the right tune. We all like to walk down the street with our headphones on and pretend we’re in a music video, he just takes that as seriously as it’s humanly possible. And so the whole movie is set to an awesome playlist and carefully choreographed, car chases and gunfights included. We hear what Baby hears at all times, including a faint ringing in the rare moments of silence. Colour is used to cue us into the tint and hue in which Baby sees the world at any given time.

It’s a very fun movie to watch. The car chases are frantic and beautiful, completely immersed in the music. I was worried I was bothering the other moviegoers because I was literally dancing in my seat. It makes me very happy that some young directors are instilling new life in the musical genre (I already wrote about Damien Chazelle): this is no West Side Story but there is no denying it’s a musical, in that music is an integral part of the experience, in a new, exciting way.

It’s not a parody or a pure comedy like the Cornetto Trilogy but it still has some brilliant comedic moments, such as “you’ve got a tattoo that says ‘hat’” and Samm at the post office, but don’t expect to laugh out loud all the time because that’s not the point.

But wait! There’s more.

***SPOILERS***

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The long way to a small, angry planet (Becky Chambers, 2014)

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The long way to a small, angry planet, by Becky Chambers (2014).

Score: irregular.

Kids, this is why you get your manuscript proofread by a professional. The long way to a small, angry planet was originally self-published and later distributed by Hodder & Stoughton, who didn’t bother to comb over it like any editor would have with a manuscript. Angry planet slaps you in the face from page one with cringeworthy literary style: incorrect punctuation, anacolutha, unsuitable or incorrect vocabulary, a narrator with an inconsistent style, and awkward metaphors all happen in the novel.

The long way to a small, angry planet tells the story of the multispecies crew of the Wayfarer, a tunneling vessel whose job is to make new wormholes to connect different places of the galaxy. Rosemary, who has a terrible and secret past, is the newly arrived clerk; Kizzy and Jenks are the techs, Ashby is the captain. Corbin is a cretin who is in charge of the ship’s fuel; Sissix is the pilot, an Aandrisk: a sentient, lizard-like species. Dr. Chef, as suggested by his name, is both the medic and the cook aboard and is a member of the almost extinct species Grum. Finally, Ohan the Sianat pair, which means he and a brain-eating parasite, make tunneling possible and Lovey the AI makes sure everything on board runs smoothly.

The characters are hard to become familiar with because they don’t have that many special features or serve a narrative purpose. Corbin is set apart early in the novel for being obnoxious, but the rest of characters are far too similar to each other. Kizzy is insufferable. Ashby has no personality. The only thing that makes Jenks different is that he’s… short. Angry planet is not so much a space opera as a bunch of tidbits about these characters. The novel reads a lot like fanfiction and I’ve been trying to figure out why; I think it’s because it focuses mostly on the everyday lives, personal relationships and backstories of the characters. Chambers has lots of fun putting the characters in quirky situations and figuring out how they react: it’s like Angry planet is fanfiction exploring the characters for another space opera where things actually go down.

This being said, there is one thing at which Angry planet sweeps the floor with other novels: worldbuilding. This is some platinum-tier space opera worldbuilding. Every sentient species, especially the Aandrisks and the Grum, have really interesting histories and backstories. The attention to cultural interactions is very refreshing and a trend I expect to keep seeing in Twenty-First Century science-fiction authors. Minute details like the shapes of chairs, handles and bottles. The development of different cultural values and ethics, linked to biological realities. Dr. Chef’s backstory made me choke up a little. The moral dilemma posed by Ohan is extremely interesting; it’s a shame it’s resolved so bluntly.

All in all, the style made me want to cry but the worldbuilding made me stay. Tread carefully.

 

Only God forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)

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Only God forgives, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2013).

Score: thoroughly uninteresting, unless you look at it from a very particular point of view.

Winding Refn is style over substance, always. That’s just what he does. Only God forgives could very well be a collection of neon-lit shots of Bangkok’s underbelly, and nothing more. And it would be a gorgeous collection indeed. The long, panning shots in overly saturated colours, everything bathed in a neon glow, renders the scenes unnatural and seedy. After all, neon is for cyberpunk megalopoli and brothels.

But a movie is not an art book: it must tell a story. Only God forgives follows drug queenpin Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her two sons, Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling). After Billy gets killed for raping and murdering an underage prostitute, mother and younger brother try to avenge him and fall into the hands of vigilante corrupt cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). There’s not what you could call suspense or action, really. The movie not so much paces as slithers through ninety minutes that feel like two hundred. Two smartass Americans get their asses handed to them by a middle-aged Asian cop and that’s more or less the end of it.

Nevertheless, there is something that sets this movie apart from Drive or The neon demon: it is heavily laden with Freudian symbolism, which makes it not only the most aesthetically beautiful of the three, but also the one with the most hidden substance. Britt Hayes wrote a superb piece on it that made me appreciate a little more a movie that had me yawning for an hour and a half.

***SPOILERS***

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What we do in the shadows (Clement & Waititi, 2014).

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What we do in the shadows, written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (2014).

Score: bloody hilarious.

What we do in the shadows is a mockumentary that follows the everyday lives of four vampires who share a flat in present-day Wellington. Viago (Taika Waititi), 379 years old, was a German dandy and even to this day he is delicate and easy-going. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), 862 years old, was known as Vlad the Poker for his favourite torture method and still has his way with the ladies. Deacon (Jonny Brugh), 183 years old, is a young, wild, Bela Lugosi-like vampire who got turned by 8,000-year-old, Nosteratu-ish Petyr (Ben Fransham), who lives in their basement and is not very social.

The false documentary attests to how the flatmates argue over who has to clean the huge pile of bloody cups or to how Viago tries to convince Vlad to cover the couch with towels before eating someone so everything does not get messy. The vampires have real trouble clubbing because they cannot walk into any pubs unless they are invited in, and a running feud with a local pack of werewolves (not swearwolves).

What we do in the shadows is extremely genre-savvy: virtually every vampire trope you can think of is mocked, spoofed and deconstructed, all in the fragmented style of a reality show; ad-libs add to the hilarity and the special effects are pretty nice. Waititi looking meekly at the camera as Viago and smiling with his little fangs while everything goes to shit behind him cracks me up every time. Needless to say, there are copious amounts of black comedy, like Deacon’s familiar Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) bringing her school bully and her ex-boyfriend to be eaten.

To wrap it up, totally worth it.

 

 

Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

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Coherence, directed by James Ward Byrkit (2013).

Score: rather poor.

You don’t want to know a lot about the plot of Coherence, but so you get an idea of the kind of movie it is, it takes place almost entirely inside a house during a dinner party with eight guests. A comet is passing quite close to Earth that night and freaky things start happening.

Coherence has appeared in several lists for best 21st Century science-fiction movies, obscure science-fiction movies and low-budget science-fiction movies, but I find that it has a worldbuilding problem, is not very original at all and has maddening cinematography.

The movie was apparently mostly improvised, with the characters just given a paragraph with their character’s motivation, so the actors themselves were discovering the plot as they went. I’m sure it was terribly fun to shoot, but not so much to watch. That kind of experience is better suited for a room escape design or a roleplaying game, but not for a movie. If you want believable reactions, hire the best actors you can, but for goodness’ sake, don’t sacrifice watchability for that. The camera is shaky, unfocused at times and has terrible angles. Some reality shows are better shot than this, really. And apparently it was all done so the actors could move around freely.

***SPOILERS***

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Zwartboek (Paul Verhoeven, 2006)

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Zwartboek, directed by Paul Verhoeven (a.k.a. Black book, 2006).

Score: sober.

The Hague, near the end of Nazi occupation. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is a young Jewish singer from a wealthy family; when the Christian family who was hiding her dies in a bombing, she is approached by police officer Van Gein (Peter Blok), who offers to take her to Allied territory. She takes a loan from her father’s lawyer Smaal (Dolf de Vries) and reunites with her family, but the barge they’re travelling in is raided by a nazi boat and everyone is killed except for Rachel. She decides to join the resistance, led by Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), dyes her hair and adopts the name Ellis de Vries. After some of her comrades are arrested by the Gestapo, she decides she must seduce SS Colonel Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) in order to save them.

On one level, Zwartboek is an exciting thriller with spies, double agents, deceit and strategy. Every character must make choices and take chances, not only in the context of war, but also looking at how their actions will be judged when the Allies eventually win the war. Ellis learns that the attack on the barge which killed her entire family was far from being a coincidence, but she can’t start to imagine how convoluted the truth about it is.

On another level, Zwartboek is a war movie, and one that focuses on a topic that is not frequently discussed, especially as World War II is frequently considered the good war: how in civil wars, or occupations, your friends, neighbours and acquaintances will make decisions you despise or show their true colours, and once the war is over and strife is no longer coercing people, there can and will be consequences.

Ellis’ feelings towards Müntze are not spelled out for us. Has she fallen in love with him? Does she just respect him, or feel sympathy for him? Does she think she’s a good man, despite the circumstances? Does she separate the personal from the political? When the war is over, she barely makes any effort to deny she was a collaborationist, despite the fact that she was in the resistance all along. One great virtue of this movie is the way it portrays grey and grey morality in the context of something as fucked up as war.

To wrap it up, an exciting thriller and an interesting reflection on the controversy between resistance and collaborationists in the occupied Netherlands.