Both ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘Okja’ represent directors in love with their work done right while ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ finally combines the best of both worlds

When I get two movies of this caliber back-to-back, I can’t help but write about them. It’s what I started this blog for in the first place and would be squandering an opportunity to rave about films I unequivocally loved from top to bottom.

I’ve lumped these two films into one post not only because they are both uniformly excellent (and the best of the year up to this point, bar none) but because they highlight something I argue for again and again on this website and that is vision.

Edgar Wright and Bong Joon-Ho are two writer/directors that have had clear trouble within the studio system lately. Wright’s came in the form of his very public split with Marvel over creative differences on Ant Man, a movie he was involved with for almost a decade; Joon-Ho’s was a fight for edits on his latest Snowpiercer. Prior to releasing the film in North America, the Weinstein Company (the distributer) attempting to cut down the film for wider appeal against the director’s wishes. While Joon-Ho eventually won out, I don’t doubt this experience may have soured him to the traditional studio/distributor model.

This isn’t to say studio collaboration is a wholly bad thing. More often than not (I assume), collaboration results in a better product as everyone is working towards making a better product.

However there’s a point where creators with a vision should be allowed to create collaboratively and others when a creator needs to be given more wiggle room.

In these two instances, the risks taken by both Sony and Netflix paid off spectacularly and resulted in two of the year’s finest.

….

Oh! Also I threw in a last minute Spider-Man: Homecoming review….

So we got ourselves a three-parter!

Baby Driver

The plot:

“After being coerced into working for a crime boss, a young getaway driver finds himself taking part in a heist doomed to fail.” – IMDb.com

The review:

Baby Driver will probably end up being one of my favorite movies of 2017. As of now, it sits comfortably right next to A Ghost Story (a movie I’d love to get into more here but alas I have two other movies to talk about already). There are a lot of days between now and the end of December but as far as a bar, Baby Driver is head and shoulders above just about everything else I’ve seen this year thus far and it DRIVES home a suspicion I’ve had about Wright for the better part of a decade…

Edgar Wright has no business making any movies outside of Edgar Wright movies.

While it’s a shame his vision for Ant Man didn’t work out it would have been an even bigger shame if he made the movie but without putting his entire heart into it. Something that transcends beyond just a movie-watching experience with every one of Wright’s five movies thus far is how much of himself the writer/director clearly puts into each film.

I ultimately really liked how Ant Man turned out (particularly given how much worse it could have been) but I’d be lying if I don’t ponder how it would have looked/played out under Wright’s direction. However given the creative differences we’ve all been made privy to between Wright and Marvel in the making of the movie, I’m happy he decided to step away. I don’t want to see a movie Edgar Wright made and didn’t love. He clearly LOVES Baby Driver and this luckily turns out for the best because his passion is simply infectious here.

Part of this, I assume, is because this is an idea/movie the guy’s been sitting on since as far back as the 90s (so long ago, I know) and even went so far as to let the general concept inform the music video he directed for Mint Royale.

Much has already been said about the film’s soundtrack, admittedly one of the best in a good long while. It’s one thing to have action set to good music; it’s another entirely to have the music direct action. Taking a cue from his music video experience, Wright masterfully weaves his mix tape into the proceedings and makes lanes of traffic his dance floor. Too often do we see  a recognizable song inserted into a movie to garner audience reaction (looking at you, Suicide Squad). Baby Driver‘s soundtrack has a clear mission statement and it’s “Buckle up.” It’s different even from James Gunn’s much beloved track lists for his two Guardians films. Whereas those film’s fit a specific niche (i.e. a mix of 70s/80s standards Peter Quill’s mother would realistically include on a mix tape), Wright assembles a mish mosh of different genres and eras of music to create some glorious clusterbibble of musical insanity, including songs you wouldn’t automatically associate with tension or high octane action. Like massive props for squeezing out as much tension out of Barry White track, something I never really ever considered I’d one day write.

Baby Driver is a pretty funny movie throughout, but Wright never loses focus on what exactly at stake here and what’s so refreshing about the film is that it feels as if there are actually stakes at play. Until now, Wright has utilized his considerable cinematic eye for the purpose of parody but like all great parodists he knows what makes his targets tick, and he’s a pro at mimicking the language of the movies he loves. Just like Jordan Peele did for horror with his directorial debut earlier this year in Get Out, Baby Driver not only pays tribute to the canon; it becomes a new defining contemporary. He’s always skirted the line of paying homage to idol turned friend Quentin Tarantino but here he goes all out. It’s as if Tarantino got a hold of the script for Drive and through in some Mario Kart, and as hokey as that sounds, it works like gangbusters.

I guess if I were to (nit)pick any element of the movie I’d point to the romantic aspect of the story being a little less developed than the crime side of things. True Romance (an obvious influence here) suffered from a similar problem. It isn’t bad per se. It’s just not as engaging, partly I assume due to the level of cast on the crime side where Ansel Elgort and Lily James, as good as they are, sort of pail in comparison when put side-by-side with Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm. Once again, I stress this is a nitpick more than an substantial complaint as the cast is uniformly spectacular, particularly Foxx and Hamm. No spoilers but where Hamm goes in this movie is easily the best stuff he’s done since Mad Men ended and a keen reminder that this guy needs to be headlining films. Eiza González rounds out the main criminal cast and is probably given the least to do. However thanks to sheer charisma, she leaves her mark and would not be upset to see her get more projects as a result of her participation here (and the same goes for everyone else in the cast too).

It’s really hard to pin down just what works best about Baby Driver when I unabashedly loved just about every square inch of it. Call me a Wright fanboy if you must, but that man’s cinematic sensibilities largely coincide with mine in a way not many other filmmakers do. Part of me wants him to return to making more films with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, yet a larger part of me wants him to keep exploring new, uncharted areas but most of all: KEEP MAKING EDGAR WRIGHT MOVIES.

Okja 

The plot:

“Meet Mija, a young girl who risks everything to prevent a powerful, multi-national company from kidnapping her best friend – a massive animal named Okja.” – IMDb.com

The review:

If you’re not a fan of Bong Joon-Ho’s earlier directorial outings (which include the likes of The HostMother and Snowpiercer), chances are Okja is going to do very little to convince you otherwise. The man’s chaotic sensibilities are all over this thing and admittedly not everything sticks; however, I can’t help but marvel at the attempt none-the-less. Part E.T., part Fast Food Nation, part Wes Anderson, part Pixar, part….countless other things, Okja is the cinematic equivalent to a pot luck dinner; everyone brings something unique to the table, and as is the case with good pot lucks, the end result is ultimately delicious.

And given the proceedings, “delicious” may not be the best term but I felt it was apt therefore I’m just going to commit to it. It’s been kind of odd to see Netflix market this thing as a more of a family film which it most certainly is not. The only real whimsy is near the beginning of the first act as we see Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and the super pig by which the film gets its name live out their idealistic lives in the South Korean countryside. After about 15 or 20 minutes though, things take a considerably darker turn. And not in the same way Gremlins or The Goonies did. While darkly comedic at points, this movie is pretty bleak and offers very little in the form of resolution. No spoilers but this movie ends about as happy as it could given everything that occurs.

That isn’t to say the movie isn’t fun at all. Joon-Ho sets his chase scenes up there with the best of them.

His camera glides set pieces, providing a genuine sense of scale, that harken back to the likes of Spielberg, a director to whom he is often compared. And that’s not the only bit of Sir Steven’s DNA Joon-Ho infuses in Okja. The same could be said of how he utilizes visual effects. Okja is a Netflix Original but you see quite a few dollars in its titular super pig. Joon-Ho really gets a handle on special effects being a tool rather than a crutch by which to set your film. Okja, and the rest of her ilk, all look startlingly real at points.

I also really hope he continues this trend he began with Snowpiercer in assembling a truly global cast. I know this is not the case but it felt like there was representation on every front here as reflected by a cast made up of some of our best and brightest actors working today. Rather than run through them all, I’ll make note of one in particular before saying the obvious…

Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the most underrated big name character actors we’ve got working today, goes full Nicholas Cage here in that he goes big. Like really big. What one may call hammy (pardon the pun) acting, I call rising to the material as many of the actors go really large here. I particularly liked the team of Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall and Devon Bostick as a team of Animal Liberation Front members set on bringing the evil corporation behind the proceedings down in a flaming ball of wreckage. The movie could have easily made these characters noble martyrs devoid of anything interesting. Instead, we get a cluster of characters that may have hands just as dirty as those they condemn. Here’s hoping that if for whatever reason this spawned a sequel, that group would be at the center of it.

Now what was that obvious thing I was going to say?

Oh yeah, the cast is great and a great ensemble. Some have larger parts for sure, but I think everyone was great in terms of memorability. Also cool to have a cast of people I wouldn’t automatically associate with one another in any way come together and actually work really well together. Points to you, Okja cast.

That isn’t to say this movie is free of some heavy handed messages. The social commentary is laid on so thick this time out you may just feel your cholesterol rise at one point or another. When we advance to the more metropolitan area of the film, things start to become all at once more wacky and incredibly dour.

And it’s when those two key elements (the whimsy of the country side and the wacky yet bleak, over-the-top metropolis) where things don’t really click all the way for me. Perhaps Joon-Ho meshes these two, from the offset, incompatible sides intentionally. The down home values of rural living don’t often sit well with the cynical crassness of the corporate circus. It might be more than a little blunt, but that could also be the point.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

20170706091137!Spider-Man_Homecoming_poster

The plot:

“Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Peter returns home, where he lives with his Aunt May, under the watchful eye of his new mentor Tony Stark, Peter tries to fall back into his normal daily routine – distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man – but when the Vulture emerges as a new villain, everything that Peter holds most important will be threatened.” – IMDb.com

The review:

I’m writing this one sort of last minute because…well, I don’t really have a proper excuse. It’s mainly to A) keep in line with my self-imposed Marvel tradition and B) I love Spider-Man….as in “He’s my favorite superhero” level of love (least we forget I wrote a terrible outline for a proposed 4th Sam Raimi movie…you may call it fan fiction) so I’d probably be a waste if I didn’t take some time to talk about this latest movie (the third cinematic iteration for those keeping count) starting ol’ Web Head.

I’d still say Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is still the best of the Spidey films if only for the insanity he brought to the table, but this is EASILY the best one since that one. It’s always been comical how better adept Marvel is at making superhero movies than Sony is, objectionably solidified here as Marvel took the creative reigns with Homecoming and Sony footing the bill for distribution and marketing.

Perhaps the best thing about the film as a whole is how Marvel seemingly made a checklist of things we have and have not seen in a Spider-Man film (we’re up to 6 now), placing an emphasis on the “HAVE NOT” section. Elements worth noting: Spider-Man forced to traverse landscapes without the use of New York’s tall buildings, Peter gets a side-kick, no city-wide threat, minimal stakes (at least in relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole) and minimal set up for future films. Given it took six screenwriters to bring this latest outing to life, it’s remarkable this movie is as comprehensible and breezy as it is.

It’s been said a lot but this is Spider-Man at his most basic core and it is so f*cking refreshing to have him solving problems below the level of a city destroying disaster while also balancing high school problems like studying and finding a girlfriend. We’re also at the stage of Spider-Man’s superhero career where he’s about as competent at saving the day as the kids in director Jon Watts’ first feature Cop Car were at grand theft auto (and just as bad of a driver, I might add). We get a pop in from Tony Stark (played as always -until the money runs out- Robert Downey Jr) who offers kind of advice and glimpses at the larger universe Spider-Man has finally rightfully entered pop up here and there but this movie is at its prepubescent best when it “keeps its feet to the ground” and let’s Spider-Man be Spider-Man. I’m excited to see where Peter Parker fits in come Avengers time, but right now it’s just nice to have a solid solo adventure unconcerned with sequels and spin-offs. -coughAMAZINGSPIDERMAN2cough-

Based off of this sole outing, I’m happy to see where we go with these characters. I wasn’t immediately onboard with Peter Parker having a comedic sidekick but Jacob Batalon went far and above in winning me over. Peter’s never really had a sounding board in a movie before and it’s a refreshing change of pace to have someone he can communicate with about superheroing outside of a love interest. There’s been some chatter about Aunt May being played by a younger actress (in this case, Marisa Tomei) but I attribute that to just nerd bitching for the sake of bitching. I thought she was perfectly fine here and honestly wish we had gotten some more scenes between her and Peter.

We also have Zendaya playing Michelle “MJ” Jones. I think the whole crew has expressly said up to this point this character is not Mary Jane Watson, but I’d be interested to see if they go down that route in future film’s in having her become a love interest. Zendaya plays MJ more akin to Ally Sheedy’s in The Breakfast Club rather than the red headed, street smart bombshell Mary Jane is in the comics which I am by no means opposed to. I’m jut curious as to why Marvel opted to have her play a wholly originally character with the nod to Mary Jane without just having her play Mary Jane. Maybe I’m just over-thinking it but given the PP/MJ relationship is one of my favorites in all of comicdom, I’d be lying if I were to say I wasn’t just a little disappointed it apparently won’t have a place in the new films.

I think Tom Holland may represent the closest we come to in terms of a consensus on who is THE Spider-Man. Tobey Maguire was a wonderful Peter Parker, bringing a truly geeky shine to the part as well as shouldering the inner turmoil and downright bad luck that also defines just who Parker is. However his Spider-Man lacked zany energy and the nonstop banter we know and love from the comic. Andrew Garfield had the exact opposite problem. Where his Peter Parker was a vanilla hipster, his Spider-Man was just about everything you could want out of that character.

Holland is the first (in my opinion) to finally blend those two together, being at once the perfect Peter Parker AND Spider-Man. I believe he’s only a year or so younger than Maguire was when he first donned the tights but his overeagerness and endless enthusiasm make for a character that comes off as genuinely youthful where Maguire (and especially Garfield) seemed almost too old.

Marvel is actually 2 for 2 this year in the quality villain department between this and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. It’s been written about in length elsewhere, but most disappointingly the Marvel Studios films lack genuinely interesting menace.

Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes, more popularly known as the Vulture, a villain that’s never really lit my pants on fire in terms of Spider-Man’s main rouges gallery. Sure, he can be interesting but there are a lot more compelling cards in the deck if you catch my meaning. Well, I’m happy to eat my words here because Toomes, as played by Keaton, embodies everything I love about Spider-Man villains and why the represent the best of the bunch out of any Marvel superhero’s.

Toomes and his crew, rounded out by some other well-known (and not-so-well known) Spider-Man baddies, have no interest in global domination. They aren’t really out for revenge either. They mainly just want money and, at least in Toomes’ case, to provide for their families. In fact, the only time our villain kills someone it’s a complete accident…and I loved that. The best Spider-Man villains are generally either regular guys or super geniuses, all of whom could probably better humanity if their rage and/or interests were directed to positive outlets.

While this movie is really fun (outside of Baby Driver and Lego Batman, I’d reckon this is the most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year), it neglects one of the key aspects of the Spider-Man mythos that left me somewhat…cold.

I’m all for skipping the origin story. We’ve seen it enough times at this point, particularly in Spider-Man’s case. This movie never shows us the fateful spider bite. Nor does it show us the death of Uncle Ben. It fact, I don’t remember Ben Parker ever being mentioned even at one point and this leads into my larger issue with Disney’s approach here.

There’s really never any moment of grief expressed at almost any point in this roughly 2 hour movie. It’s clearly a calculated move and it takes a toll in more than one aspect. More than once, Peter’s inexperience threatens the lives of innocents. At no point are we really told, “Great power = great responsibility,” either explicitly or even through action. Not one of his stupid, selfish choices effect him or his life emotionally.

Let’s go down the list…

SPOILERS

Botch an attempt to stop a robbery and nearly get someone blown up. It’s fine. In fact, both he and his cat are also fine.

Ditch your friend at a party? It’s all good. He’s not mad. They called you,”Penis Parker” for a few seconds, but no one bullied you or made fun of you for not bringing Spider-Man.

Ditch your friends for a really important competition? It’s fine. They still won.

Almost get your friends killed at the Washington Monument through your own stupidity? It’s fine and you’re even more famous now and Tony is even happy with you. Good job blowing up the Washington Monument!

Foolishly attempt to thwart some bad guys on a boat which directly leads to its destruction? No one died so it’s all good…BUT YOU DON’T GET YOUR SUPER COOL SUIT ANYMORE.

Ditch your prom date? It’s fine and she wishes you luck later.

Steal someone’s car? It’s fine and it’s never mentioned again. It’s funny even! (Editor’s note: it is really, really funny. I really liked this bit….I’m just adding it to prove a point.)

Crash a plane into a populated area? No one was on it and no one died! Yay! Also the bad guy likes you now…and so does Tony! Good job! You get your suit back!

END OF SPOILERS

This lack of consequence is somewhat disappointing because it’s something the first two Raimi film’s emphasized so well. Spider-Man 2 hammers home just how much it sucks to be an adult, let alone an adult with spider powers. Adulthood limits us and comes with a true cost. It doesn’t come with a parent-block or imaginary line. You learn through the piles of shit life throws at you, not by life handing things to you and saying, “Good job.”

Perhaps it’s highly appropriate this movie references Ferris Bueller, a movie about the ultimate in unchecked teenage fantasy. The problem is the movie tells us differently at times. Tony gives Peter lectures about responsibility, but tangible consequences are no where to be found.

This by no means ruins the movie; it’s just something I wish had been included if only for a moment. Like it or not, tragedy is a defining element to the Spider-Man character. Hell, it’s a motivator for just about every superhero under the sun, both red and yellow. In Spider-Man’s case, the death of his uncle is something he could have prevented. The death of Gwen Stacy is something he directly caused. Now I don’t want a glum, emo Spider-Man. We got that with the last two movies and it sucked in every way conceivable. But this is a character that lends itself to some darker elements, and I hope Marvel doesn’t lose sight of that moving ahead. Luckily, at this point, I have a rather large amount of faith in that company given their track record so my expectations going into the sequel will be astronomical.

For what it is, Spider-Man: Homecoming is by and large my favorite of the comic book bunch this year which is saying a lot given what else is included in its 2017 graduating class (The Lego Batman Movie, Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Wonder Woman and those are just ones that have been released). And when I say, “favorite,” I wouldn’t automatically say that translates to best per se. This was just such a rejuvenating experience because this is largely what I’ve wanted from a Spider-Man movie for so f’ing long and it largely delivered on everything I wanted, checking off just about every box in my wish list.

It at once combines a lot of what I love about the comics with just about everything I love about the movies in one digestible cocktail. Here’s hoping they add just a little bit more spice on the next go around…in a sequel, not another goddamn reboot.

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