It’s no secret that ever since I’ve gotten a child my opportunities to watch movies has decreased significantly. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade parenthood for the world, but the fact is my childless days afforded me many chances to check out movies on the big screen. However a side-benefit of having a child means that during the much rarer times when I do make it to the movies, I get to make it worth my while by doing a double-header. Usually these double-headers are just two movies that I wanted to see that fit in the schedule. Thematic similarity is rarely a consideration (for instance earlier this year I did a Moana/Arrival double-header).
But this Friday as I sat down in my theatre seat for my first movie I realized much to my surprise that I had inadvertently created the perfect double-header. Through sheer coincidence I had paired Baby Driver and Logan Lucky. Two heist movies. Both set in the south. Each incredibly stylized in their own way. And the end result of this serendipity was a pretty darn good time at the movies.
BABY DRIVER dir. Edgar Wright
Much of Edgar Wright’s success is that he is an absolute master at framing a shot, specifically for visual comedy. So there was some trepidation when I heard that Baby Driver was going to be much more straightforward drama as what makes Wright’s movies work so well is their sense of playfulness. How would his style work when he wasn’t proverbially winking at us?
Truth is, I needn’t have worried as Baby Driver is an absolute joy to watch. From the first shot of the movie it is clear that though the movie isn’t a comedy, that doesn’t mean Wright has lost his sense of visual humour. Much like most of Wright’s oeuvre he has us dive immediately into the story without much time for exposition or backstory. We are introduced to Baby (Ansel Elgort), a perpetual ear-bud wearing getaway driver just before a heist starts. He cues up his music on his iPod, lip syncs as he waits for his crew, and in almost perfect timing drives off in a blaze of glory as he evades the impossibly large number of cops on his tail. In this way it starts out like so many crime heist movies except that it is shot with inch-perfect precision, boundless energy, and an endless amount of style and panache.
It is this confidence of framing that carries the entire movie. The story is nothing terribly inventive as it basically rehashes the story of a criminal trying to get out of his life of crime after one last job. We’ve seen that movie many times before, but not shot like this. And more importantly we’ve not heard a movie like this. The soundtrack of this movie is just as important as anything else not simply because it is really cool, but also because of the way Wright uses it. Most of the movie plays almost like a music video, but it is done with such attention to the story that it feels like a musical without anyone actually singing in it.
Of course all of this may give the reader an impression that the movie is shallow, but that misses the mark. It isn’t so much that the movie is shallow, but rather that Wright wants as much as possible to just tell the story visually. An early scene set to Harlem Shuffle perfectly illustrates this. It follows Baby as he leaves his crime headquarters on a coffee run through the streets of Atlanta. Without any words being spoken, we are introduced to the larger world Baby lives in, the kind of company he keeps, the type of person he is, and even has time to cameo his crush. It is proof that Wright isn’t interested in telling you anything that he couldn’t already show you. His succinctness and precision in storytelling is as much a welcome relief as it is a slight jab at other bloated blockbuster spectacles.
The only fault with this movie is that apart from Baby the characters in the movie are basically cardboard cutouts. Of course when some of those cardboard cutouts are occupied by Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Kevin Spacey the results are going to be entertaining but they all feel underwritten. Even Lily Tomlin’s Debora feels especially flimsy even though Tomlin does everything possible to give her role some depth. This lack of depth in any of the supporting characters conspires to almost derail the third act as the intended gravity of what happens simply isn’t felt as the movie rushes to its conclusion.
Apart from these faults however the movie simply works from beginning to (almost) end. With a fantastic soundtrack, heart-racing car chases, and Wright’s typical visual panache it is designed to entertain and leave you with a smile on your face. Much like every other Wright movie, is is a visual playground that we’re all invited to live in. And if the movie leaves us exhausted it’s because that is just what most wild rides do.
LOGAN LUCKY dir. Steven Soderbergh
On the surface Logan Lucky would seem to have much in common with Baby Driver. Both deal with heists, both have alienated protagonists at the centre looking for one last job before they get out, and both feature absolute killer soundtracks. But that is about where the similarities end as we trade the hyper-kinetic urban coolness of Baby Driver for the down-to-earth and much slowed down pace of Boone County, West Virginia. Steven Soderbergh’s newest film is not just a delight because it marks his return from his self-imposed exile but because it is a ridiculously entertaining caper with a cast of characters worthy of the movie’s hijinks.
At the centre of this movie is Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a down-on-his-luck construction worker in the middle of Appalachian country who finds himself laid-off for a previously undisclosed limp. While perhaps the most surprising thing in recent cinema history is the fact that Tatum has somehow become Soderbergh’s muse, Tatum acquits himself here as he portrays the mastermind behind the proposed heist at the centre of the movie. Unlike Soderbergh’s previous Ocean’s trilogy in which the would-be thieves robbed simply because they had the skills and savvy to, Jimmy Logan robs because he desperately needs to not just from a financial standpoint but because it is key to his being able to have a relationship with his daughter whom his ex-wife has custody over.
So if necessity and not ego drives this mission, then it makes sense that the first people who join him do so out of loyalty. And no loyalty goes deeper than that between siblings as we get introduced to his one-armed brother Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) and their much more sensible sister Mellie Logan (Riley Keough). Clyde and Jimmy form the heart of this movie as the two redneck brothers who on the surface seem “as simpleminded as people say” as someone quips.
Together the two decide to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway and to do so they need a bomb man which brings them to the door of incarcerated Joe Bang, played by a completely off-the-hinges Daniel Craig. Once the three come together, the movie bristles with off-beat humour and oft-kilter antics. Tatum rightly anchors the movie, allowing Adam Driver to deadpan as only he can do. Meanwhile Craig has his most entertaining performance to date as the slightly-off-the-hinges and appropriately named Bang. A particular scene of his involving a pneumatic tube and gummy bears provided the biggest laughs of the night and is possibly worth the price of admission alone.
Yet this isn’t a laugh-a-minute movie by any means. The humour is subtle and the pace is very measured. Soderbergh doesn’t rush through plot points and twists but rather lets them unfold patiently. Befitting the setting of the movie, the movie isn’t concerned with being slick and cool but rather excels in its down-to-earth realism by finding its comedy and thrills in the ordinary. The humour of the movie comes not from any hijinks or pratfalls but because of the eccentricities of the characters and their interaction with one another. While there is a heist, there isn’t much urgency even as it is being carried out and this isn’t a problem because it it simply too much fun just to hang with the colourful cast as they verbally jab one another and teeter just one hair short of complete incompetence. This makes it a shame that the last quarter-hour finds the central characters disappear in favour of another character who I won’t spoil here. Needless to say though, it does however feel a little out of place with what has gone on before.
The easiest way to describe the movie may be to call this a “Redneck Ocean’s Eleven” but this description shortchanges the movie. This is because the movie has a lot of heart and charm as it finds its greatest strength in following a desperate and simple man trying to win some control and luck back to his forlorn life. And in so doing it becomes a gentle and warm respite from life. As far as Soderbergh movies go, it feels less like he’s flexing his muscles and more like he’s simply getting back into the swing of making movies again. But the movie is a welcome return from the master.