Us (2019) Film: Hands Across America Event Illicits a Strong Time & Place

Hands Across America was a benefit event and publicity campaign staged on Sunday, May 25, 1986 in which approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a path across the contiguous United States.

Director Jordan Peele uses the time period of 1986 to show a younger version of the main character. Peele utilizes the famous Hands Across America event to bring us into the urgency of the moment.

It’s an oft-used but very solid screenwriting nugget to help flesh out and bring to life a scene: use some sort of promotional material from the recent past, such as when – for example – modern day films sneak in Bush-Cheney campaign posters in the background of shots in order to illicit a certain emotional response or bring up memories of said event.

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” did this well, utilizing a myriad of tools (including but not limited to presidential campaign lawn signs) to re-orient us into a particular time and place, a much-needed tool given the fact that the story moves through many years (decades) of time.

We remember really impactful presidential campaigns (if we were alive and self-aware enough to consciously live through and experience it). Every audience member isn’t going to have the same response to these tokens as the person sitting beside them but if the filmmaker picks a bold and memorable cultural artifact we should at least be able to recognize it and be able to identify where/when it was born into existence in relation to our lives.

It seems like an easy and super obvious storytelling trick to orient the audience to a time and place, but so often it is ignored, misused or underused as an effective filmmaking tool (especially in horror films). Too many movies go the dull and easy route, simply slapping white text across the bottom of the frame and labeling a time as 1976 or Twelve Years Earlier, as easy to pull off as just simply listing ingredients on the side of a soup can. Try harder…

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The Last Jedi: Dissecting “Toxic Masculinity”

“The Last Jedi” has its defenders and supporters, but it has a lot more built-in messages than both of the two groups may realize. It’s certainly a movie that rewards repeat viewings.

The film is oozing with tons of admiration for filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, constructed in a familiar mold and used by Rian Johnson to propel the characters into engaging, even suspenseful, action. It shows us a series of situations with multiple different characters simultaneously, constantly cutting back-and-forth in the middle of an inconclusive sequence.

We see Kylo as a general, Rey as a trainee, Finn as an adventurer, and Luke as a very doubtful/dejected man having cast himself out in isolation. The anxieties and concerns that Luke feels are very real, perhaps too real for a Disney flick in which the primary concern is identifying which scene will suddenly break out into rainbow-colored saber duels.

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Poe Dameron is a cocky, surefire pilot with nothing to really lose. We don’t know for sure if he has a family but it does seem very apparent and obvious that he’s likely a bachelor. He’s Han Solo on steroids: passionate and motivated but very reckless. His desire to complete a mission, even if it would be more strategically advantageous to pull out and recalibrate, often puts the well-being of his fellow comrades at risk.

Jonathan McIntosh sums up the problem with Poe concisely and smartly here, so i’ll hand him the mic:

The character of Poe Dameron has a lot to do with both the subtle philosophical goals of the film as well as the pompous, overly hateful reaction that overflowed across the internet following the release of “The Last Jedi”.

I Don’t Understand the Love for Henry Cavill’s Superman

I’ve seen a lot of passionate people on Twitter grieving the loss of Henry Cavill’s superman role. The Hollywood Reporter released a fresh scoop detailing how Warner Bros. is allegedly releasing Cavill from his contract. It’s honestly not very surprising.

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/henry-cavill-as-superman-warner-bros-dc-universe-shake-up-1142306

On top of the Mustache-gate debacle featured in Justice League, DC just simply took Cavill for granted. They thought he had a debt to them for building up his career in a major way with “Man of Steel” and that they could do no wrong. They mistakenly thought he was a team player, a DC-Lifer in the same way that Robert Downey Jr. is for Marvel.

The reality is that Cavill wasn’t that great as superman because the movies both weren’t very good and even, oddly, chose to use him as an uninspiring, emotionally void supporting character. “Man of Steel” was a subpar movie, poorly directed and slam-packed with so much corporate advertising that it felt sleazy and desperate.

The premise that Cavill has the “potential” to be a great superman if he were used properly is unknowable. He’s a stiff American Eagle model with the jawline of a God but the personality of an Olympic announcer. He says all of his lines clearly but there isn’t any real passion or character-building behind it.

It’s as if Henry Cavill had been built by James Lipton in a film factory that produces A.I. performers. The dialogue is written in a stilted and boorish manner, sure, but the choice in actor didn’t help, either. Let’s give our comic book characters personalities again, even if it means returning the diaper.

Why not give him a Kansas-style accent? Make him espouse American values, even if it’s slightly at odds with his morality or short term decisions/choices. The most engaging thing about superheroes is their imperfectness. The whole intrigue, at least for me, is the concept of ‘what would you do if you were suddenly granted god-like powers?’

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People have always claimed that fame reveals or amplifies a person’s true identity. Multiply that by ten or a hundred if that individual not only instantly became world famous, but also had the power and ability to spite his enemies with no recourse?

That’s an interesting dilemma and the angst surrounding such an issue was not believably brought out or portrayed by Henry Cavill. He looked contemplative and thoughtful when he was supposed to feel hesitant and broken. Neither the character nor the actor ever truly understood the magnificent impact of their powers.

 

Justice League: Grading Character Introductions

The Avengers set a high bar when it comes to skillfully integrating a barrage of characters. They start with scenes of single characters and slowly evolve the cumulative  situations in a natural way, where it feels right for the superheroes to be meeting, as the film’s title promises.

There’s a right and a wrong way to integrate characters into a universe, or a story, or a first film. And they’re all unique and require a certain sensitive, graceful directorial touch. It can’t feel like an inspection at the airport: you’re required to do this first before we can all get together and head towards our desired destination.

The way that these intros are put together can and often does determine the quality of the rest of the film. If the director treats the short introduction as a meaningless requirement and not a vital opportunity to show off a character’s personality and style, then the rest of the film probably won’t put much attention or emphasis on such details either.

Note: all members of the Justice League are included in the grading, not only the characters who haven’t had a solo film or been in any DC films yet. Superman’s inclusion is a bit of a technicality, but I counted his late-in-the-game arrival anyways. Also I decided to add a short bit on Alfred’s introduction – so he’s in there too.

Batman/Bruce Wayne

I definitely enjoyed the isolated scene introducing Batman in Justice League. He’s usually brooding as Batman or as Bruce Wayne at some party he doesn’t want to be at. Here, we see him perched on a building top in what seems to be a simple job: grab the thief, tie him up, hand him to the police; classic but unexciting Batman. Instead, he hangs the thief off the edge of the building.

“Fear…I can smell it,” he says, which in any other context would be a very corny line. But it has a very literal purpose in this scenario. The flying creature that Batman is tracking is attracted to fear like moths to a light. He pulls the man back onto the building top and jumps onto the flying creature.

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Great composition and shot of Batman reeling in the creature with an ultra-strength net contraption. It’s Batman at his finest: no guns or easy way out. He has to find a solution to beat his enemies in whatever manner possible. Using his surroundings, such as here, where he utilizes the net to staple the creature against the building wall.
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Moments earlier….This is not Batman. Points deducted. He’s a ground fighter, a tactician, a detective who reads situations and attacks accordingly. Their are safer, smarter ways to kill a flying alien than launching your non-flying self off of a building. A hook contraption that pulls him in. A paralyzing dart. Something other than spinning through the air, tightly hugging onto this colorful creature for an extended period of time.
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Such heart-pounding, adrenaline-inducing..action? A lot of hugging and now alternating close-ups…maybe even a kiss? Go for it – aliens are people, too..

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It gets some exposition done while also showing off Batman’s great suit and overall look, almost demon-like. It’s just enough for a character that nobody needs to get more familiar with. We’re on board with Batman: we like him, we know him – he’s cool.

Batman/Bruce Wayne introduction: B+

Alfred 

It might be a very small detail, but I really like how they bring Alfred into his first scene/moment. He doesn’t join the action with a funny quip such as, “You’re at it again, I see” or, “What a surprise, you’re out at night..”

Alfred, in the comics at least, is an essential character, not a comedic one. He’s in Batman’s ear, assisting him with information, radar, locations, etc. And that’s how Justice League introduces him. He makes a statement about the situation in a frank manner, as if he’s seen and done this a thousand times before, which he has.

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Michael Caine was very good as a more fatherly version of Alfred, but Jeremy Irons’ no nonsense portrayal is just more fitting for Ben Affleck’s battle-worn, aging Batman.

Alfred introduction (albeit a short one): A

Wonder Woman/Diana Prince

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is arguably the best aspect of the DC film universe thus far. She’s magnetic yet filled with inner and outer strength. She’s opinionated and has a backstory that meshes well with interesting scenarios. And that makes it all the more disappointing that her brief introduction involves having to thwart the plans of this boring ass, hat-wearing terrorist:

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You couldn’t create a more cliched, disposable villain if you made him in a lab, which this British bloke seems to have been. Nothing about him threatens to stop Wonder Woman or succeed in his plan. You could have literally cast a red punching bag, hung it from the ceiling, and had Wonder Woman quickly punch it until it breaks off the chain. That’s all this guy represents: a regular old bad guy written solely to be wiped out within the only scene he’s involved in.

Now, I understand that we know who Wonder Woman is and they just wanted to sweep through her intro and get to the characters that we haven’t met yet. But why even have a solo scene involving her if you’re going to phone it in like this? No creativity whatsoever.

A bomb. Hostages. Slow-motion (hi Zack!). Soldier-types with assault rifles. And a couple of corny lines to cap it all off: “I don’t believe it…what are you?,“. Ha. Ha. Heh. “I’m a believer,”. So she just repeated a similar sentiment back to him, but with added confusion: Is Diana saying that she believes in herself? That’s no surprise – she’s an Amazonian superhero; there’s no reason for her to not believe in herself. Thumbs up, screenwriters…Diana and Gal deserve better.

This here lasso makes you truthful!
Here’s a tiny detail that exemplifies why it’s important to establish major characters before assembling them into a team-up film. Why does Diana have to say, “the lasso compels you to tell the truth.” Just start throwing questions at him – she doesn’t have any rights to read to him. He doesn’t need to be informed of his situation and neither does the audience. Wonder Woman has had her own solo movie, a hugely popular one, but even if she hadn’t, it’s an easy thing to pull off visually. He could suddenly stop blinking or quit nervously mumbling, speaking very clearly, etc.

Wonder Woman/Diana Prince introduction: D+

Cyborg/Victor Stone

They handled Cyborg’s introduction really poorly. All exposition and brooding. How are we supposed to get attached to this vital member of the league if his first scene is comprised solely of him complaining about his “curse”?

It isn’t a compassionate father-son relationship: Victor yells at his dad and exclaims that he’s made him into a MONSTER! Sound familiar? Nervous scientist tries to calm raging man with confusing newfound abilities? It’s been done before. And this repeat of such a scenario doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

It only detracts from Cyborg’s arc or lack of an arc. If they could have added a little bit of character interplay, like a football game featuring Victor where his father shows up or doesn’t show up, either way. Anything that brings us into their relationship on some emotional level.

Great shot of the young, exciting new DC addition: the magnificent Cyborg!

Or ignore the father, as they mostly did here anyways, and just show us what Victor is all about, walking through the city streets, going to school, etc. To just drop Victor, distraught about his “monstrous” condition, onto the audience’s lap is a shame and a bit of a disgrace to his comic book legacy.

Conflict should arrive after something good or at least authentic happens, writers. Otherwise why should we feel bad or care or feel pity for Victor? The only impression I got from his first scene is that he’s very dramatic, whiny, and pretty outwardly cruel to his father. What’s that one quote about how crisis reveals character? No revelations here..

If you didn’t know about his storyline from the comics, it would be easy to think that he was going to lash out at his father and become the villain, eventually meeting up and battling it out with the league.

One saving grace as a result of Victor being a smug, angry teenager in his introductory scene: it gives Diana the opportunity to breathe as a character and act as a sort of motherly figure. She has a sense of responsibility, the sort that’s required of her as a major leader within the league.

Cyborg/Victor Stone introduction: D

Aquaman/Arthur Curry

The problem with bringing Aquaman to the big screen has always been the fact that he’s Aquaman. He talks to fish, as Batman lightly quips in their first scene. The screenwriters desperately want to tread within that fine line of creating a serious, complex character while also somewhat acknowledging his silly origins. He doesn’t jump ten feet into the air and plunge into the water in a half-spin torpedo dive. He does this:

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He flops backwards and slides underwater, disappearing. It’s kind of funny, really. The writers so badly want to avoid any form of mockery about the character and his abilities that they don’t really show them off much at all to begin with, and when they do, the shot is held for a total of .5 seconds. Blink and you’ll miss the back-flop into the water.

We see these cave-like drawings on the wall earlier in the scene:

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The simple sketches create a mythic aura to the character. Batman doesn’t know who he is, apparently, even though he has a dossier on every other league member or future member. Curry doesn’t want to talk to or be a part of Batman’s plan.

It’s kind of meta: the character that the audience and Batman have never met is annoyed for having to explain himself, for having to give any form of exposition. They barely have a conversation before suddenly the shirt is off and he’s plunging down into the ocean. Aquaman doesn’t need to talk too much: his powers are very tranquil and highly visual in concept.

It’s not a thrilling or action-packed scene, but they don’t all have to be, especially considering the very friendly serving of it later on in the film. It’s teasing his potential, which is huge and awe-inspiring in scope. They got most of the cultural stigmas/comedic aspects of his character out of the way.

“Can you at least point me to Atlantis?,” Bruce Wayne asks, a sly, knowing look on his face.

Affleck delivers it perfectly: he’s not making fun of him, he’s just giving him a bit of a hard time. A quarter smile – he doesn’t even think it’s all that funny, just intriguing. If Bruce started laughing heartily, smiling ear-to-ear, slapping Arthur on the back in jest – then we’d have a problem. But that doesn’t happen.

Batman is the leader and organizer of the league, so logically it makes sense that he would be the one to make the trek to Arthur’s location and try to recruit him. It just happens to work out that Batman is the most well-known person in the league and in real life – he has the most movies, toys, everything – so it evens out nicely to have the comfort of the known confronting the new. The interplay between them is a give-and-take: Batman and his stoic stiffness and Aquaman with his pessimism and disinterest.

Arthur even has a slight ideological difference with Batman, creating conflict within the league, an important part of any superhero team-up movie; they can’t all get along the second that they lay eyes on each other. A solid, subtle introduction of a tricky, easy-to-fumble superhero.

Aquaman/Arthur Curry introduction: B+

The Flash/Barry Allen

Whereas Cyborg’s introduction had too little emotion, The Flash’s intro has a bit too much sappiness. It’s important to explore his past, but this scene right here shouldn’t be our first look at The Flash:

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Maybe I’m being too cynical, but this gesture seems like something Barry would do the first time he’s able to come and visit his father. His dad even says that he comes too much and has to stop – wouldn’t this hand-on-the-glass act get a little repetitive after so many visits?

It’s a quick way to explain a general summary of his past and catch up on where he’s currently at in his life. They decide to cut straight to the prison, to this sad sequence of pure dialogue. Billy Crudup delivers an intense, authentic plea to Barry to stop visiting him and live his life. He speaks slowly and intently, as if he’s been thinking about this for a long time, practicing the words to perform for Barry and try to get him to move on.

The introduction is brief and only memorable for Crudup’s short but impactful performance late in the scene. It’s a huge contrast to Barry’s later role as the comedic relief, although there’s not much relief: he’s extremely unfunny. Bad timing, delivery, and some pretty awful writing, to be fair. The quips just fell really flat for me.

The Flash/Barry Allen introduction: D+

Superman/Clark Kent

Superman’s resurrection is a bit convoluted and overlong. It features a bit too much slow-motion considering the fact that the main catalyst in the plot/scene is THE FLASH.

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The fight between Superman and the rest of the league is visceral and exciting, yet entirely pointless as well as contradictory to the premise of a team of superheroes. Superman can destroy them easily; he’s more powerful than all of them combined.

So basically the film is making the assertion that the Justice League is a group of back-up heroes in the event that Superman dies and isn’t there to swiftly clean up any mess. There is a league in the comics meant for those who apply to be a part of the league and aren’t accepted. I forget what the secondary group is called, but I know it’s not “Justice League”.

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“I see Flash, people…”

It’s admittedly pretty cool to see all of the heroes vulnerabilities come to light as well as all of Superman’s unlimited strengths. It’s a moment of bigness: I’m better, you know it, try to deal with it. It doesn’t add or continue any plot strain from Man of Steel or BvS: it’s an isolated, one time zombie-Superman break out.

It isn’t the worst way to introduce a major character late in a film, but it isn’t ideal for it to be unconnected to the past or the present in any meaningful way other than, “we can’t do this without him!”.

Superman/Clark Kent re-introduction: C-

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And that’s all, folks. I don’t have anything to say about the rest of the film, both in the positive sense and in the sense that it’s been covered and dissected in every corner of the internet already. It’s not a bad movie; it’s got many good qualities and moments. But it also unfortunately falls a part many times, unable to withstand the pressure of juggling so many comic book entities in a single film.

 

The Shape of Water (2017)

One of my earliest Guillermo del Toro films that I’d seen and loved was Cronos, a small little flick about an ancient artifact that grants eternal youth. It featured a great supporting character, the nephew of an old wealthy man, played by a young Ron Perlman. Perlman really chews up the role and the scenery, bringing a sort of omnipresent, vibrant energy to the ancient mythology within the films narrative. The Shape of Water has del Toro returning to these character-centric roots, filling the frame with well-defined, and often funny, characters.

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Set in the 1960s, del Toro uses the period as a lift to his films overall atmosphere, packing the mise en scene with mossy green highlights, narrow hallways, and plenty of gargantuan laboratory devices to house the creature in; each scene gives off a very steampunk-like vibe.

The film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaning woman working in a semi-secret government facility (how secret can it be if these cleaning ladies are flying in and out-of-doors as if they were working at a Holiday Inn?) alongside her friend, Zelda, played sympathetically by Octavia Spencer.

There may be a satirical effort being made for the reason that the two women have free range access to the labs, as if the men of the 60s felt that women were so puny and impressionable that it wouldn’t matter what they saw or heard.

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Richard Jenkins, typically a terrific but minor character actor, brings a refreshing amount of depth to his character, Giles, a proverbial ‘starving artist’ whose only friend is Elisa. Given that he’s a gay man in the 1960s, Giles struggles to express himself or create meaningful relationships, making it either ironic or just very on-point that his best friend, Elisa, is mute and can’t speak at all. But that doesn’t stop him from rambling on about Old Hollywood musicals and the like.

The creature in The Shape of Water isn’t your typical one, though he may look and move a lot like Abe Sapien, the aquatic creature who happened to appear in del Toro’s Hellboy series. There is an espionage war over the ‘asset’, as they refer to him as, with the Russians infiltrating the facility by way of Dr. Hoffstetler, though Hoffstetler’s heart is more on the side of scientific ethics than it is with the goals of his government.

Michael Shannon plays the clear-cut actual “monster” of the movie, though even his character has an added layer of complexity. Director del Toro explores the values and feelings of an everyday American family man in the 1960s, fresh with a fancy teal car, a nice home and a cold, mentally unstable interior life.

The fact that The Shape of Water is critically acclaimed and earning del Toro a series of directing awards is a fitting cap to del Toro’s fantastic filmography and career. It wouldn’t feel like a lifetime achievement award if he ended up winning best director at the Oscars. The Shape of Water is a sensitive and highly imaginative piece of film art, drawing very close to the same incredible awe and gravitas of del Toro’s undisputed masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. 

https://twitter.com/LopaMills/status/951895394472091648

 

 

 

The Dig – New Short Film & Review

A new short film directed by Joseph Kosinski, the filmmaker behind Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. It’s the first footage shot on the new CineAlta VENICE Full Frame Camera and, as one would expect, it looks fantastic. It doesn’t hurt that they hired Kosinski, who has been criticized for being too focused on creating brilliant, symmetrical imagery and not enough focus on narrative and character. He’s a technical artist, not a traditional storyteller.

I saw Oblivion in IMAX and was pretty blown away by the precision behind each individual shot. He creates sequences like he’s building a high-speed bullet train, not a slower, more bumpy train with twists and turns. It can be temporarily awe-inspiring, but I’ve never had the urge to go back and re-watch Oblivion. It’s an empty shell of a story.

The plot of “The Dig” is somewhat ludicrous. It features two janitors who look like LA models dressing up like janitors. They look totally out of place and their employers should be skeptical of their motives. They look like the type of people who wouldn’t even put on a janitors uniform, let alone actually work as one. As it turns out, they are performing an inside job to steal the new Sony camera (clever!).

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It’s fun to watch, though, as it’s basically just an excuse to show off the mighty prowess of the new Sony camera. Their are plenty of gliding, omniscient aerial shots, and some typical but beautiful helicopter shots of skyscrapers at night. You could count the cop car on the side of the road as one moment of decent tension, but the film is mainly a mystery involving two suspect janitors, not a Hitchcockian slow-burner.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Cinematography by Claudio Miranda, ASC.

Starring Taylor Kitsch and Lily Collins

Baby Driver (2017) – Film Review

The opening to Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” feels a bit braggadocios, a bit indulgent, and a bit too similar to a recent Apple commercial. All in one take, the opening tracking shot follows our main character, Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, as he walks freely through the streets, crossing roads, passing murals, and avoiding bystanders. Each set piece he walks by correlates with the words in the song he’s listening to with his signature earbuds, always at hand and usually blaring full volume.

It’s a clever opening, though very self-referential: “Shaun of the Dead” featured one of the greatest one take tracking shots ever with Simon Pegg’s character bumbling through his town, ignorant of the blood and zombies surrounding him as he yawns his way through the vacant streets. The movie slows down a bit after the opening street dance/music video, getting into the reality of Baby’s life as a getaway driver for low-life, high-stake criminals.

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The leader of the operation is Doc, played smugly by Kevin Spacey. Jamie Foxx plays the confrontational character, even having a line in the movie commenting about the crazy position being filled already, by him. Jon Hamm plays a more sedated role as Buddy, another member of the crew; he wants to get the job done and get out of town with his girlfriend as soon as possible.

Baby drives as a result of a traumatic childhood experience involving a car wreck and the death of his mother. He has permanent ringing issues in his ears as a result of the accident, hence the constant music. The soundtrack is the lifeblood of the movie: the characters question it constantly, but when the music starts, Baby switches gears and turns into an 11th grade version of Ryan Gosling in “Drive”. He’s slick and intelligent, knowing the routes by heart, able to intuitively escape from seemingly inescapable scenarios.

Lily James plays Deborah, a young girl that works as a waitress at the diner where Baby’s mother used to wait tables. He’s a regular at the diner and soon garners her attention with a few of his songs and some friendly conversation. They have a runaway vibe throughout, though their relationship can’t be entirely filled out due to his responsibilities to Doc as the whiz-kid driver.

The movie has a lot of heart and clearly a lot of passion for the art of fast-speed driving. The coordination that had to happen to clear the roads and perform the spinning, sliding car donuts must have been exhausting. “Baby Driver” is an exhilarating chase movie made by one of the most inventive action directors of the decade.