Baby Driver

A film aimed at fanboys and genre aficionados positioned amid a seasonal whirlwind of big-budget sequels and remakes seems like a gamble, yet Baby Driver might be cool enough to pull it off.

After all, both the characters and the concept in this stylish heist thriller from British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) are subversive and clever, with intensity and attitude to spare — even if the setup ultimately is greater than the payoff.

The film follows a socially awkward misfit nicknamed Baby (Ansel Elgort), who remains quiet while hiding behind a perpetual pair of sunglasses and earphones, the latter due to a hearing impairment stemming from apparent childhood trauma. But his skill behind the wheel speaks volumes, especially to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a ruthless crime boss who hires him as his getaway driver.

Baby’s quirks and offbeat musical tastes puzzle the more experienced accomplices who ride alongside him. He comes out of his shell after meeting a diner waitress (Lily James) with vulnerabilities of her own. Yet when he signs up for one last job before going straight, Baby realizes that he might have been set up to fail all along.

The film is not so much directed as choreographed to its awesomely diverse soundtrack. The frenetic barrage of four-wheeled chase sequences — the first of which is the most exhilarating — is accompanied by a steady chorus of shifting gears and squealing tires.

Visually inventive and meticulously edited, it’s as much a showcase for its characters on four wheels as those with two legs, providing a visceral excitement while toying with clichés.

Although Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t check the boxes of a traditional action hero, he finds sympathy in a young man with a most unscrupulous job. Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm are among those seeming to relish villainous supporting roles.

Wright’s screenplay glosses over much of the character development for anyone other than Baby, and doesn’t hold up to much logical scrutiny. A subplot involving Baby’s relationship with his disabled foster father (C.J. Jones) never gains much traction.

Still, even if it’s not as compelling when the engine isn’t running, the film is consistently amusing. Just like its title character, Baby Driver very much finds its own rhythm.

 

Rated R, 112 minutes.

The Beguiled

Rarely has the Deep South during the Civil War looked as resplendent as in The Beguiled, even with a chorus of cannon fire echoing in the background.

While the 1971 film of the same name really didn’t need a refreshing, this stylish remake from director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) cleverly frames the material as a tale of feminist resilience and resourcefulness with contemporary resonance.

While women weren’t allowed on the front lines, there was a more low-key battle of wits being waged inside a rural boarding school in Virginia, where a precocious young student (Oona Laurence) finds a wounded Union soldier named McBurney (Colin Farrell) clinging to life in the woods.

The youngster instinctively brings him inside the fenced-off schoolhouse, where her sheltered classmates react with varying degrees of skepticism along with their stern headmaster, Martha (Nicole Kidman), and their teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).

Reluctantly, Martha nurses him back to health while deciding whether to share news of his capture to the Confederate troops. As his health gradually improves, so does the quiet attraction between McBurney and Edwina, along with the curiosity of oldest student Alicia (Elle Fanning).

The film is a dazzling technical achievement, featuring evocative period sets and costumes complemented by a haunting music score that helps to heighten the suspense.

The performances are solid even if the Southern accents are uneven, with the women often conveying emotion through body language and subtle glances. Meanwhile, Farrell struggles to match the subtle intensity that Clint Eastwood brought to the same role almost a half-century ago.

The central moral dilemma breeds some intriguing character dynamics as the women ponder the bedridden interloper’s background and motives, which are left open for interpretation to the audience, as well. Martha, of course, is the primary voice of dissent. “You’re not a guest here,” she bluntly tells him. “You’re a most unwelcome visitor.”

Yet Coppola emphasizes mood and atmosphere more than dialogue. The deliberately paced melodrama is restricted almost entirely to a single setting, where the muted sexual tension gradually intensifies, then boils over in the final act.

While the subsequent twists feel tame and the cumulative effect is more muddled, there are some scattered moments of raw emotional power along the way. Appropriately enough, this version of The Beguiled serves as a beguiling companion piece to Don Siegel’s often overlooked original.

 

Rated R, 93 minutes.

The Big Sick

One of the main characters spends significant time in the hospital, but The Big Sick thankfully doesn’t dwell on the cryptic illness in its title.

Rather, this heartfelt and frequently hilarious comedy provides a vibrant and life-affirming twist on familiar themes about immigration, cultural traditions, romantic entanglements, and fledgling comedians.

The latter of those is Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistan native whose semiautobiographical film is based upon his stand-up career, along with the real-life relationship highs and lows involving his American-born wife.

Although he’s since experienced a gradual rise to fame both on stage and television in the years since, the film hearkens back to when Kumail — living in a cramped Chicago apartment and sleeping on an air mattress — meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) after she gently heckles him during a set. They’re drawn together by each other’s shared sense of quirky humor.

But will the relationship last? The primary obstacle is Kumail’s overbearing parents, who use family dinners to introduce him to potential Pakistani brides, in accordance with tradition. He lacks the courage to stand up to them, and it causes a breakup.

Then Kumail gets a call that Emily is in the hospital with a serious undiagnosed ailment. That’s where he winds up meeting her strong-willed mother (Holly Hunter) and more understanding father (Ray Romano), and bonding with them over the uncertainty about her condition — and for Kumail, about his future with Emily.

The screenplay by Nanjiani and wife Emily Gordon (spoiler alert — she recovers) is candid in its portrayal of the more fragile moments between them in real life, while adding a tender promotion for inclusion and extended families in the melting pot that is contemporary America, free from political polemics or socioeconomic cynicism.

Nanjiani plays himself in a charismatic performance that appropriately resonates with authenticity, and might have the side benefit of providing a career breakthrough. His offbeat and slightly awkward chemistry with Kazan seems genuine as the couple endures some expected culture-clash hurdles.

Although the film seems embellished in spots for mainstream consumption, director Michael Showalter (Hello My Name is Doris) emphasizes the small surprises along the way, and refuses to settle for cathartic contrivances.

The endearing result is hardly a breakthrough, but a consistently amusing tale with an uplifting and thought-provoking message about modern romance.

 

Rated R, 119 minutes.

Capsule reviews for June 23

The Bad Batch

Some striking visual flourishes can’t compensate for muddled storytelling in the English-language debut of Iranian filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night). The ultraviolent thriller follows a resilient young woman (Suki Waterhouse) as she navigates post-apocalyptic Texas, where she’s kidnapped by a community of cannibals, then escapes, only to realize through some oddball encounters (and amusing cameos) that savagery lurks around every corner. Waterhouse is appealing as the tough-minded heroine in a role that requires little dialogue — Amirpour instead relies on captivatingly stark imagery and a cool soundtrack. Yet despite its stylish originality, the overall impact is more tedious than suspenseful. (Rated R, 118 minutes).

 

In Pursuit of Silence

You might want to close your eyes during parts of this documentary, and that’s a good thing. As it mostly focuses its camera on mundane shots of rundown urban buildings and picturesque rural landscapes, it urges moviegoers to just listen to the natural sounds around you — without distractions from technology or incessant chatter. The point is that we don’t have enough silence in our lives, and while such a concept might seem obvious, the meditative approach of director Patrick Shen is persuasive. Although the pace is deliberate, those in the right mindset should appreciate a film that doesn’t need to speak to get its point across. (Not rated, 81 minutes).

Cars 3

There’s more to life than winning races, a message that Cars 3 delivers to two-legged moviegoers through its four-wheeled protagonists.

However, it seems the 11-year-hold franchise refuses to acknowledge its own platitudes about retiring with dignity, as this third installment in the animated series once again tries to recapture its glory despite being well past its prime.

As the film opens, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) finds his career as a NASCAR champion endangered by a new generation of cars, led by the cocky Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who are faster than ever thanks to breakthroughs in technology and analytics.

McQueen still has the passion for racing, but his title aspirations are slowing down. He tries to reinvigorate his success with a rich new owner (Nathan Fillion) — who has ulterior motives for signing him — and a young trainer (Cristela Alonzo) with racing aspirations of her own.

However, despite the support of his old friends back home in Radiator Springs, the efforts to teach an old car new tricks lead McQueen to rethink his priorities.

To a certain extent, Cars 3 puts the franchise back on track by dialing back the action on the asphalt — which overwhelmed the frenetic second film — in favor of a more mature and character-driven (for a movie starring anthropomorphic vehicles) examination of mid-life crises, legacies, and mentorship.

Those themes might not resonate with the target audience, which remains preteen gearheads who will turn the revved-up on-screen characters into an off-screen merchandising bonanza. They might better appreciate the silliness of the requisite high-octane action scenes, including one during a figure-8 race that’s especially high on spectacle.

As with the prior two films, this effort is visually striking, with crisp animation highlighted by vibrant character and background details.

Still, the vast majority of these characters are more familiar than fresh by now, and most of their shtick is recycled. The voice cast includes the usual assortment of real-life drivers in cameo roles, such as Lewis Hamilton, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, and others.

Even if the story suggests otherwise, it’s time to trade in this batch of Cars films for a newer, sleeker model. The current series is running on fumes.

 

Rated G, 109 minutes.

The Book of Henry

In its opening chapters, The Book of Henry is a domestic drama about protective parenting, arrested development, child welfare and sibling bonds. By the end, it’s a revenge thriller driven by maternal instincts and vigilante rage.

While both of those ideas could make for compelling cinematic storytelling, getting from Point A to Point B proves considerably more difficult for this muddled small-scale effort from director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) that consistently rings false.

The title character (Jaeden Lieberher) is an analytical 11-year-old prodigy locked in a role reversal with his single mother (Naomi Watts). He takes care of the family finances while she comes home after work and plays video games. Yet theirs is a relationship of mutual caring and respect, and support for Henry’s mischievous younger brother (Jacob Tremblay).

Henry develops a friendship with a classmate (Maddie Ziegler) who lives next door, only to discover a possible dark secret about her family that prompts him to plot an act of vengeance. Yet Henry’s scheme is threatened by circumstances beyond his control, and it’s up to his mother to step in for her son and save the day.

Despite some intriguing character dynamics and strong performances, the film indulges in shameless pandering rather than emotional authenticity and winds up feeling totally detached from reality.

Lieberher (Midnight Special) and Tremblay (Room) achieve a convincing brotherhood bond, and teenage dancer Ziegler offers a striking big-screen debut in a mostly quiet and introspective role.

Before transitioning to blockbuster sequels — he’s also set to helm the highly anticipated Star Wars Episode IX — Trevorrow proved himself capable of offbeat, character-driven projects with the delightful Safety Not Guaranteed. Yet here, he’s working with material that doesn’t have the narrative dexterity to juggle its awkward shifts in tone and its implausibly eye-rolling twists.

Rookie screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz, best known as a novelist and comic-book author strains for sentimentality and delivers the payoff with sledgehammer subtlety. The result squanders its fleeting moments of poignancy and charm.

While it doesn’t subject itself to genre conventions, the film too often reaches for concepts outside its grasp. Ultimately, The Book of Henry isn’t engaging enough to satisfy on either the page or the screen.

 

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes.

Capsule reviews for June 16

47 Meters Down

Such depth is lacking in this shallow thriller about two sibling damsels in distress who encounter trouble on a Mexican vacation. Specifically, adventurous Kate (Claire Holt) talks her timid sister, Lisa (Mandy Moore), into a scuba adventure in which they descend in a cage to see Great White sharks up close. The cable breaks, the oxygen is depleting, and the sharks are circling — you know where this is going. Despite some stylish touches from director Johannes Roberts (The Other Side of the Door), the formulaic film requires an outrageous suspension of disbelief, ultimately failing to generate consistent suspense or sufficient sympathy for its dimwitted divers. (Rated PG-13, 89 minutes).

 

Kill Switch

Some intriguing concepts never come together in this incoherent science-fiction thriller trying to drum up paranoia about an impending energy crisis. It takes place in a European metropolis in the near future, and tracks the efforts of an American pilot (Dan Stevens) to deal with the chaotic aftermath of an apocalyptic accident involving his employer, a high-tech energy firm that tries to create clean energy from intergalactic matter. Through visual trickery (including excessive first-person point of view) and a jumbled chronology, the muddled film is structured as a puzzle about corporate greed, socioeconomic class and technological overreach that most moviegoers won’t care enough to solve. (Rated R, 91 minutes).

 

Once Upon a Time in Venice

Not funny enough as a comedy and not exciting enough as a thriller, this cut-rate Tarantino knockoff instead features chase scenes with Bruce Willis cross-dressing and skateboarding naked. It’s not set in Italy, but instead along the beaches of California, where fledgling private investigator Steve (Willis) becomes involved with drug dealers, loan sharks, and a host of other lowlifes while trying to recover his stolen dog. The resulting hijinks are amusing only in small doses, and are compromised by a convoluted plot and grating narration by Steve’s wannabe sidekick (Thomas Middleditch). The film squanders a supporting cast that includes John Goodman, Jason Momoa and Adam Goldberg. (Not rated, 94 minutes).

The Mummy

Historical and archaeological accuracy isn’t a high priority for The Mummy, the latest attempt to resurrect a big-budget cinematic franchise.

Such intricacies are hardly important to this action spectacle that provides a cross-training opportunity for Tom Cruise prior to the next Mission: Impossible installment.

The charismatic Cruise is certainly in his comfort zone as a globetrotting hero who emerges from shootouts and explosions with nary a scratch. It’s a transparent attempt to launch another franchise he can add to his portfolio, since even at age 54, he still makes the requisite physical rigors seem effortless.

“You can’t keep the past buried forever,” explains an early warning from Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), whose infamous alter-ego also makes an appearance later. So you know it will go unheeded by Nick (Cruise), a wisecracking American military contractor in Iraq — formerly Mesopotamia — who happens upon some ancient ruins beneath the desert sand.

Despite more warnings to stay away, Nick and his colleague (Jake Johnson) do the opposite, seeing the discovery as a chance to bag some valuable jewels. However, when they do so, they awaken the corpse of a malevolent 12th century queen (Sofia Boutella) who’s not exactly a morning person.

So Nick teams with a scientist (Annabelle Wallis) to dodge rats, spiders, bats, zombies, shifting rock formations, and everything else in the supernatural arsenal of mummified royalty seeking revenge on the world for some 900-year-old wrongs.

Noteworthy for its inclusion of more women in its lead roles, this version of The Mummy certainly amps up the action compared to previous incarnations, including those starring Boris Karloff in 1932 and Brendan Fraser in 1999. The idea, of course, is to fill the screen with constant motion to distract from the threadbare plot and flimsy character development.

As a result, director Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us) keeps the pace lively with some visually imaginative action sequences — such as a genuinely exciting sequence aboard an out-of-control airplane that feels like it belongs in a different movie — and abundant special effects.

Of course, once you dig beneath the slick surface, it’s all quite formulaic and predictable, hardly bothering to explain the logic behind its mix of ancient Egyptian legends, contemporary military conflict and modern scientific exploration. No matter how often it’s buried, this is yet another big-screen concept that never seems to die.

 

Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.

Megan Leavey

While it focuses primarily on the title character, Megan Leavey is more compelling when the cameras follow her four-legged sidekick.

Combining the violence of a contemporary war movie with the tender tale of the bond between a woman and her dog, the uneven narrative debut for director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) ultimately features more bark than bite.

It’s a straightforward story of true-life heroism that chronicles Megan (Kate Mara), who joins the Marines after Sept. 11, 2001, as a way to seek redemption from a troubled family life and failed relationships. After a montage whips her into shape, she finds her way to the K9 unit, with the goal of becoming a handler for a combat dog.

Eventually she’s allowed to train Rex, an aggressive German Shepherd with a nasty temper, yet the two seemed destined to be together. They’re deployed together to Iraq, where Rex sniffs out landmines and uses his instincts to potentially spare the lives of fellow soldiers.

After an explosion injures them both, they’re transported back home and become separated during their recovery, with a reunion facing plenty of medical hurdles and bureaucratic red tape.

The film provides details on a worthwhile military program, showcasing not only the role of canines on the front lines, but the behind-the-scenes interaction with their handlers. Dogs remain a valuable resource during wartime missions, where their loyalty and companionship could mean the difference between life and death.

Canine aficionados will appreciate that, and only the most cynical viewers won’t feel a sense of patriotic pride while seeing them in action. Indeed, Rex is the star of the show, with lingering trust and anger issues that are more difficult to dramatize, although Mara does more than just hold the leash as the resilient and tough-minded heroine.

However, while it smartly remains politically even-handed — except for the military gender politics that Megan is forced to navigate — the screenplay glosses over its character development, never sufficiently probing Megan’s inner turmoil. An intermittent romantic subplot feels distracting.

Megan Leavey is a heartfelt crowd-pleaser that feels too sanitized where it could have been grittier and edgier. And like its main character, the film just isn’t the same when Rex isn’t around.

 

Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.