Saturday, December 9, 2017

Movie Reviews: Baby Driver, House of Strangers

Baby Driver
directed by Edgar Wright
Classic action film with familiar storyline and twist ending
I wasn't planning to watch this movie because I thought the story had to be similar to Drive or a million other movies where the hoodlum with a heart of gold has to do a final job for the Big Bad before he and his innocent but oh so sexy gun moll make a run for the border, pursued both by Johnny Law and the Big Bad's minions. Been there, done that. But my brother insisted that I watch this film. So I decided to give it a look see. This is a story which you have seen or read many millions of times before on screen or in print. You will be able to call out the plot twists and turns as they occur. The ending was something different but that aside there weren't too many surprises. But the lack of originality didn't matter as much because the acting of the two leads was organic and exciting. 

Whenever I started to think that this film felt unoriginal the director bopped me over the head with an adrenaline charge of a car chase or foot chase. Baby Driver, much like The Princess Bride, had something positive to say about True Love. Almost by definition that message never feels completely hackneyed. So there was that.

A quiet young man is named Baby (Ansel Elgort). None of his co-workers believe his name is Baby, but it doesn't really matter what they believe as they all use aliases. Baby works for the Atlanta area crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). Via inside information, corrupt cops and meticulous planning Doc arranges various armed robberies, often bank robberies. In real life bank robberies are high risk for small reward. Most smart or organized criminals eschew public cowboy stuff that brings them to the attention of the FBI and Federal Marshals. Baby Driver ignores those facts. You can as well. As his name indicates, Baby is no tough guy. Baby doesn't enter the places his team robs. Baby doesn't carry a gun or weapon. 

Baby is a getaway driver. Baby's the best driver Doc has ever had. Baby might be the best driver that ever was. As a precocious orphan Baby stole Doc's car. Doc tracked Baby down and made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Baby works for Doc until the debt is paid off. Baby is an orphan because his squabbling parents were killed in an accident. That same accident gave Baby tinnitus. In order to block this out Baby is rarely without music on his Ipod. A music fanatic, Baby likes to drive to music appropriate to his mood or the job. He also makes his own mix tapes. The film humorously matches events on screen to song lyrics or song rhythms. If the music isn't right, Baby won't do the job. Very young looking with a blank mien, Baby tends to evoke either contempt or condescension from his fellow criminals, who usually assume that Baby is mentally retarded, virginal or both.

Baby still lives with his deaf/mute foster father Joseph (C.J. Jones). Baby takes care of Joseph more than the other way around. After a particularly harrowing robbery, Doc tells Baby that Baby's debt is paid. Baby is free to leave. Baby, who has bonded via music with the garrulous pretty waitress Debora (Lily James), starts working as a pizza delivery driver. Baby falls in love with Debora. He doesn't tell Debora what he does. But there's no story without tension. Doc lines up another job, a really big one. Baby is free to decline but then Doc couldn't guarantee the safety of Debora or Joseph now could he? On this job, Doc breaks his rules by using people he's previously used. Doc's crew will include the aggressive, quick tempered and violent paranoid Batts (Jamie Foxx), and the seemingly friendly but dangerous husband and wife couple of Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez). Baby has worked with these people before. He doesn't like them, especially Batts, who will kill at the drop of a hat. But Baby doesn't think he has a choice.

This was an exciting movie with an unexpected ending. Baby Driver's soundtrack has a lot of sixties and seventies era blues, funk, and soul music. Baby has good taste. With the recent revelations about Kevin Spacey it felt weird watching him call a younger man "Baby" but that's life. Jon Bernthal, Flea, Walter Hill, Paul Williams, Big Boi and Killer Mike all have small roles. There appears to have been a shout out to Guardians of the Galaxy concerning the hero's motivations. You should see this film.

House of Strangers
directed by Joseph Mankiewicz
Family melodrama masquerading as film noir.
I thought I had seen all the good movies starring Eddie G. Robinson, but I recently ran across this one and thought it worth mentioning. This 1949 film is also one which has Richard Conte (Don Barzini from The Godfather) in a romantic lead role. It's sobering to get older and realize that people you only knew as older actors were once young, just like you. So it goes.

Although this movie could certainly be understood as a noir film, because of the lighting and cinematography choices and occasionally bleak outlook, you could just as easily say that this is a family melodrama. This film is based on a book by Jerome Weidman, titled "I'll never go there anymore". I've seen for myself how relatives can hold on to resentments and mistreatments, real or imagined for years, even decades. If left unaddressed these emotions can harm both the owner and the target of his or her animosity. 

House of Strangers examines these familial conflicts. Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) is an Italian-American immigrant New York City banker. Gino started with nothing. He's now a big shot. Gino's success has hurt his relationship with his family. He has a cold marriage with his wife Theresa (Esther Minciotti). Three of his four sons work for Gino at the bank, just like Gino wanted. But Gino doesn't respect those three sons, Joe (Luther Adler), Tony (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), and Pietro (Paul Valentine). Gino keeps them all under his thumb. Gino routinely insults them and micromanages what little work they have. To make matters worse, Gino continually negatively compares his three older sons with his youngest son and favorite Max (Richard Conte) who has carved out his own career as a slightly shady lawyer and bail bondsman. 

Max occasionally works with his father but he doesn't work for him. Max is supposed to marry Maria (Debra Paget) but continues to carry on with the beautiful, independent and possibly dangerous Irene (Susan Hayward). Eventually Max will have to choose. Maria might look the other way on Max's infidelities provided she gets the wedding ring and house but Irene won't. She wants Max all to herself or she doesn't want him at all. Hayward looks really sexy and stylish here.

Gino is not a modern corporate tycoon. Gino seals deals with handshakes, not contracts. Gino's interests rates aren't always in accordance with usury laws. Gino keeps records of what he's loaned and what he's owed in his head or scribbled on the back of envelopes. Gino sometimes forgives debt or increases it based on whether he thinks the debtor is a good person. Gino never went to business school; he knows nothing of modern business practices. When he runs afoul of bank regulators and faces criminal charges, Gino signs the bank over to his wife, with the intention of taking back control once the legal unpleasantness is settled. But Theresa doesn't want the hassle. She transfers control to the three older sons. When Max comes to assist Gino he learns that his brothers really don't like their father. Only Max is willing to help Gino, even as he slowly realizes that his idealized version of his father isn't accurate.

The film slowly reveals other secrets. Much of the film is actually a flashback. The director shot this movie in black and white. Great stuff. The photography is very sharp. Everyone is dressed to kill. Anyone who has ever experienced familial unpleasantness will be able to relate. Your relationship with your parents and siblings has probably impacted other aspects of your life for good or bad. I haven't seen much work by Conte but this is great acting by Robinson. If you enjoy classic films and don't want explicit violence or language, this film could be for you.

There is some subtext about the immigrant experience. Gino feels betrayed by Italian-American customers who testify against him. He views himself as a provider for and protector of the Italian-American community.
This film features the verbal dexterous pugilism which so characterized Robinson's best work:
"I'll have you know my husband died happy!"
"Your husband was happy to die, which is a different thing."


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