Baby Driver

Baby doesn’t talk much. He’s constantly hooked up to his iPod that pumps out tunes selected to suit his moods, prompting one character in Baby Driver to ask “Is he retarded?” about the young kid getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), in this adrenalin rush, pulse pounding heist thriller with a shuffle mix beat. 

Another character replies in his defense “Retarded means slow. Is he slow?” From what we’ve just witnessed in the opening sequence of the film, Baby is anything but slow. In fact Baby is a maniac behind the wheel. Baby Driver is so fast it will make your head spin with delight.

It’s a careening frenetic fun ride that hits all the right notes literally with a wall-to-wall soundtrack that inspires the action sequences and car chases in a way that we’ve never quite seen before. Edited almost exactly to the beat of the music, Baby Driver is precisely choreographed to the action with an eclectic mix of Rock, Funk and Hip Hop songs as heard through Baby’s iPod and stolen car radios.

Baby learned how to drive like no one else after his parents were killed in a car accident when he was little, with him being the only survivor. Now slightly hearing impaired, he can’t live without the music blaring in his ears to drown out the constant hum giving him the superhuman ability to drive a car with a single minded focus. 

His driving ability makes him a valued asset to a group of bank robbers lead by a daring fast talking crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who coerces Baby to work for him using his talent to get them out of sticky situations.

The songs drive the film in such a way that the audience hears what Baby hears through almost the entire film and the results are fascinating and exhilarating, putting us right in the driver’s seat.

Baby Driver makes a pit stop at a roadside diner where Baby hangs out when he’s not driving just long enough to develop a quick love relationship with an attractive young waitress, Deborah (Lily James), he has his eye on. When Baby thinks he is finally free to leave his criminal past behind and make an honest living to be with his new love, Doc has other plans for him which he cannot refuse. 

A kid who wants use his remarkable talent to break from his past to be with the woman he loves is not that new a concept. Movies like Punch Drunk Love (2002) come to mind, but what makes this film unique is it’s blending of genres like the heist crime thriller with a unique musical slant. Here Punch Drunk Love meets Drive (2011) but with more action, humor and music.

British director Edgar Wright, well known for his hilarious send ups of other genres with films like Hot Fuzz (2007), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and The World’s End (2013), does it even more successfully here while raising the bar for all future action films and creating an instantly memorable film that will have audience’s jaws dropping and heads bopping to the beat.

Don’t miss this insanely stylish and enjoyable film that’s sure to make you a Baby Driver fan when it comes to cinemas June 28.

JP

American Honey

Fearless, uncompromising, and shocking, American Honey exposes the harsh underbelly of the elusive American dream. This swerving road adventure is energized with a youthful exuberance for life and a hopeful future while living on the seedy edge of an amoral lifestyle. 

It’s the Easy Rider for millennials; an unflinching and mesmerizing odyssey that follows Star (Sasha Lane), a gutsy teenage girl fed up with babysitting the young children of irresponsible parents who spend their time drinking at the local bar, when she flees her impoverished home to join a ragtag group of misfit runaway kids who ‘work hard’ scamming and robbing their way from town to town as they travel across Middle America in a van selling magazine subscriptions.

Andrea Arnold, the British director of the acclaimed film Fish Tank (2009), also about a teenage girl coming of age in working class Essex housing projects while witnessing the struggles of her single mother eking out a living by prostitution and drugs, was herself the product of years of living off welfare and scraping by while feeding her children. Here Arnold turns her eye on the American equivalent of lost aimless youth.

Using a mostly non-professional cast of actors who are utterly natural just being themselves, and filming in an array of veritable locations; truck stops, trailer parks, parking lots and abandoned houses along the endless highways of America, American Honey looks and feels as authentic as an amateur home video that never censors itself from the ugliness and beauty of the people and places it visits for short periods.

This little seen behind the garbage dump corner of American life could well be the ignored, underrepresented, low income America that recently put a reality TV business mogul in the White House.

The camera never stops moving as we are ferried endlessly in a van full of tired restless kids, capturing desolate mind numbing expanses of American landscapes, strip malls and billboards. But what is most distressing is the moral emptiness of these kids who will do anything for a buck and are heading for a dead-end life of drugs and lost dreams.

Sasha’s performance as Star is courageous and vulnerable at the same time. She wants to find an authentic life and is awestruck by the life of freedom and fun the traveling group of wild kids seem to lead. Led by the charismatic slightly older hustler Jake, Shia LaBeouf is exceptional here in a fascinating performance and brilliantly cast as the longtime team leader and go-between for the gang of kids and their intimidating female boss Krystal played by Riley Keough.

Throughout their travels and adventures together Jake and Star quickly form a strong sensual bond and have a great chemistry between them. The hip-hop soundtrack of contemporary hits that blasts on the radios of their vehicles and inside various department stores gets the kids hollering and dancing with glee as the ever changing landscapes flash by in the background giving the film a surreal fun-house feel.

Innocence is quickly lost in this dreamlike alternate reality America as the homeless kids are exposed to the severe realities of their desperate situations but do so with a life affirming resilience that is all too recognizable in children shielding themselves from the uncertainty of their plight. 

American Honey is an intimately observed and brutally honest drama about kids in hopeless situations living day to day never knowing where they will find themselves and a sad commentary on the effects of a consumerist and morally corrupt society gripping America’s youth. 

JP

KONG: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island is an epic size apocalyptic creature feature that relishes in its grand visual spectacle. Not since Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic King Kong (2005) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) have we seen such awesome digital monster clashes.

Set in 1973 Vietnam War era, the psychedelic music of the 70s drug culture sets the tone for an appropriate mythic adventure of destruction and discovery. Swarms of Huey military helicopters heading into the eye of the storm, a makeshift boat cruising down jungle rivers into the heart of darkness all evoking a fond homage to Apocalypse Now (1979).

This is not a retelling of the classic King Kong beauty and the beast story but more a reimagining of and continuation of the Kong legacy. The film gets off to a stunning start with a W.W. II airplane battle between an American and Japanese pilot who crash on the undiscovered island in 1944 that could be the start of a new Indiana Jones movie.

Fast forward 29 years into the future where a government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) is putting together a secret task force of soldiers, mercenaries and scientists to find an as yet undiscovered mysterious island thought to be a black hole into which many a plane have disappeared.

The expedition, under the guise of a geological survey team, to locate and scout the uncharted island hidden from satellites by a perpetual hurricane that surrounds it, starts out in spectacular fashion that brings together a group of unusual international characters not unlike the animated Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001).

Soon everyone is running through the jungle to Creedance Clearwater Revival and helicopters are swooping down unloading their lethal ordinance in a ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ style Vietnam War montage that explodes with operatic energy and is one of the films highlights.

A heady hybrid of jungle warfare and colossal monster films colliding in stunning awesomeness, Kong is visually glorious and a blast to watch even before we see the first Jurassic glimpses of Skull Island creating an energy and momentum that will delight even the most skeptical fan boys and girls. Even the poster is a mashup of Apocalypse Now’s sunset with Kong’s silhouette standing in for Marlon Brando’s head.

Brie Larson is well cast here as brave strong-willed heroine Mason Weaver, an independent anti-war photographer who discovers that Kong has taken a shine to her and may not be the most dangerous creature on the island. 

John C. Reilly’s comic performance as Hank Marlow, a stranded W.W. II pilot who has survived by befriending the natives of the Island almost steals the show in a role that’s equivalent to the one played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Most of the other characters are underdeveloped, serving mostly as fodder for Kong who is definitely the stand out star of the show.

Made by the producers of Garth Edwards Godzilla (2014) and directed by newcomer Jordan Vogt-Roberts - Kings of Summer (2013), this film is poised to start a new franchise of heroic large scale creature brawl films where the new digital age of monster effects dominates the landscape.

Kong: Skull Island gets the summer block buster season off to a great start if you’re looking for nostalgia and escapist adventure on a grand scale. 

JP

A Man Called Ove

Sweden’s Oscar entry, A Man Called Ove is a touching, bittersweet, comic tale that’s a deeply satisfying emotional experience, and it’s fully deserving of its 2 Oscar nominations for best foreign film and best hair and makeup.

Based on the international bestselling debut novel by blogger Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove’s main character, played by Rolf Lassgard, is definitely one of the grumpiest middle aged men portrayed on film in recent years that saw a growing spate of ageist comedies like Grandma (2015) and The Grump (2014).

As the self-proclaimed security guard and all round handyman in his well-maintained community of row houses, Ove has a long established routine of sternly making sure his neighborhood is safe and secure from vandals and thieves by diligently enforcing the rules to the letter. One can’t be too careful nowadays with irresponsible youth and the influx of immigrants. 

Ove has an intimidating presence with his mean scowl and quick imposing finger that he points at everyone who approaches him with a question or a simple good morning greeting. He calls everyone idiots, hisses at stray cats, tells off little old ladies who ask him for help, and yells at people who drive through the traffic free residential lane way.

Ove, who has tragically lost his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) to cancer recently, is grumpier than usual and has decided, after being forced to retire, to follow his true love into the afterlife. The problem is, every time he’s about to kill himself he’s interrupted by some imbecile neighbor who needs his help.

We can’t help but laugh as Ove matter-of-factly attempts and fails to do himself in. At first we have little sympathy for him but as we learn more about Ove’s past and especially his relationship with his wife, it becomes apparent that he has lost someone very special and is having trouble coping without her.

But the outside world that he hates so much keeps barging in, coming to his rescue as he learns to adjust to a new reality and we discover that he is not the evil unsympathetic man we thought he was.

The story takes some unexpectedly humorous turns including a backstory about his rivalry with a good friend that drives a wedge between them as they obsessively try to outdo each other with their loyalty to Swedish car makes Saab and Volvo.

Rolf Lassgard portrays Ove with perfect balance of comic bombast and vulnerability, bringing this unlikeable man to life in a way that we can all deeply relate to. 

Acclaimed Norwegian composer Gaute Storaas has created an evocative and moving musical score that beautifully blends comic and tragic moods touching the right emotional strings. Ove’s plodding base theme ‘Janitor’ perfectly complements Lassgard’s bold daring performance.

A Man Called Ove is the surprise sleeper hit of the year steadily gaining both critical acclaim and audience praise. It unexpectedly got onto the Academy Award’s radar and is a strong contender to win the Oscar for best foreign film this week against a tough group of excellent films.

A crowd-pleaser that deals with surprisingly relevant social issues and packs an emotional punch as it builds and develops one of the most endearing characters of the year; A Man Called Ove is a cherished experience that will stay with you long after its final fond images are seared into your heart.

JP

After the Storm

Hirokazu Kore-eda, a vital voice in Japanese cinema, known for his emotionally distressing family dramas – Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), I Wish (2011), Like Father, Like Son (2013) and Our Little Sister (2015), champions the everyday struggles of regular working class people and especially the complex family relationships between children and their parents.

After the Storm is a quietly desperate and darkly humorous portrait of a lower class Japanese family struggling with divorce, separation, financial uncertainty, and society’s expectations. 

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who has the charmingly disheveled looks and manner of a Japanese version of Hugh Grant, is a divorced novelist working as a part time private detective to make ends meet while keeping tabs on his estranged wife and son. He must come to terms with his failed marriage while competing for his son’s affections with his ex-wife’s new fiancé.

After achieving early success with an award winning novel in his youth, his family and friends keep mocking him for his lack of ambition and keep asking him when his next novel will come out. But as he struggles with midlife crisis looking back on his failed career as a novelist, his mother (Kirin Kiki) reassures him that great talents often bloom late in life.

Behind on the rent and his alimony payments due to his reckless gambling addiction, Abe’s Ryota gives an endearingly comic performance of a man-child, revealing a parent awkwardly struggling to bond with his son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), while trying to step-up and mend his reputation as a father by buying him expensive gifts he can’t afford.

We follow Ryota on his daily grind as he gambles and participates in shady extortion schemes to stay financially afloat. Sensitively told with delicate performances that speak volumes, the film visually immerses us in authentic lived-in locations filmed in tight intimately detailed spaces giving us the tactile feeling of a typical close-knit Japanese urban life. 

Visionary auteur Kore-eda knows how to get subtle nuanced moments out of his actors and is able to vividly unveil a human tenderness and understanding of such depth and power that it harkens back to the neorealism of Italian cinema showing regular people suffering with painful universal family issues.

When a typhoon (storm) hits Japan while visiting his mother, Ryota and his son and ex-wife Kyoko (Yôko Maki) are forced to spend the night together in her small ancestral cozy apartment, the close quarters allowing for a chance to remember the old family bonds that were lost after the divorce and confront their family failings.

After the Storm is a contemplative yet heartwarming optimistic experience that effectively deals with bitter generational human issues with a humor and insightfulness that everyone can relate to and will resonate with a wide audience of all cultures and classes.

JP

Lion

Lion is the profoundly moving true-life story of Saroo, a five year old boy living in a remote Indian village with his mother and siblings who is lost and separated from his brother one night while scavenging a railway station. 

After falling asleep from exhaustion on an empty train, Saroo finds himself being whisked away across India for thousands of kilometers to the chaotic city of Kolkata. Illiterate and unable to speak the Bengali language spoken by Kolkatans, Saroo had no idea where he ended up, or how to get back to his home. 

Surviving on the hazardous streets by himself for weeks while running from various unlawful fraudsters posing as kind Samaritans, he is finally taken to a crammed orphanage where he is eventually adopted by an Australian family and taken half way across the world to live with his adoptive parents John and Sue Brierley in Tasmania.

Based on his actual experiences, the movie follows Saroo Brierley on his incredible journey which he wrote about in his memoir A Long Way Home.

After growing up in a well to do middle class western family for the next 25 years, Saroo who now speaks English with an Aussie accent, can’t stop thinking about the family he left behind, and what they must be going through after his disappearance.  

After all, Saroo was not a runaway or abused by his family like many other children who end up on the streets. Saroo came from an impoverished but loving family who must have been extremely worried, wondering what had happened to him. 

Now much older and seeking his true identity, he decides to find out if he can retrace his steps back to where he came from and find his lost family using only his memories as a 5 year old, and a groundbreaking new satellite mapping technology called Google Earth.

Lion is a harsh but hopeful tale with a power and purpose that pays off big at the end of the film. We are treated to arresting aerial photography of some of India’s sweeping landscapes by cinematographer Greig Frazer who also lensed Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

Lion feels much like a documentary that takes place in and around the maelstrom of India’s swarming streets and railways stations known for its dangerous and deadly accidents. 

The performance by the young non-professional Sunny Pawar who plays Saroo at age five is mesmerizing and note perfect. The supporting portrayals by Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother and Dev Patel – Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – as the older Saroo are also excellent but Sunny Pawar’s stunning and charming performance steals the show and clearly carries most of the film.

Making his feature film debut, Australian born commercial director Garth Davis skillfully relies on the power of the striking images to tell the inspiring story and allows his actors to convey the heartfelt realism of Saroo’s experiences.

Winning the runner up prize for the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Lion found a passionate audience and is well worth seeing in any season. 

Oscar buzz aside, allow the magic of this inspirational gem to take you on an unforgettable emotional journey you won’t soon forget.

JP