BABY DRIVER (UK|USA/15A/112 mins)
Directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal.
THE PLOT: Atlanta resident Baby (Ansel Elgort) suffers tinnitus from a childhood accident. He uses a jukebox collection of music to drown out the humming. It also acts as the soundtrack to his exciting life as a getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Stacey), whom he owes some favours. Working with different crews including Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Griff (Jon Bernthal), Baby is the odd one out but he’s a devil behind the wheels, able to get his crew out of the tightest robberies. Baby thinks he has one job left for Doc, but he’s wrong. Doc isn’t going to let go of his best asset so easily, especially when Baby develops an interest in sparky waitress Debora (Lily James) and wants to break free…
THE VERDICT: In the most recent issue of Empire, Edgar Wright submitted a list of his favourite fan films. Nestled at no. 10 is Walter Hill’s 1978 film ‘The Driver’. It was an influence on ‘Drive’ and is undoubtedly an influence on Wright’s new film ‘Baby Driver’. However, Wright gives the film his own distinctive spin, set against a jukebox soundtrack which must count as among the best of the year. In a summer of superheroes and franchise sequels, ‘Baby Driver’ is a highly original blast not only of fresh air but of adrenaline.
The key component here is the soundtrack. Rather than have a soundtrack that just plays out, Wright has selected the songs to fit the tone of specific scenes, much like George Lucas did with ‘American Graffiti’. Not only that, but the songs are infused into the character of Baby himself. There has to be music playing for him to even be aware of what’s going on. Wright’s screenplay launches you straight into meeting Baby doing what he does best, before shifting down a gear to explore Baby’s backstory and his sweet, tentative romance with Debora. As befits a film about a getaway driver, the pacing is streamlined and moves like a bullet.
The characters are so beautifully written by Wright that the actors don’t even have to do that much. Elgort dials down his performance, letting the physicality and quirky humour of the character take over (he creates songs from snippets of people’s conversations, to amusing effect). It’s a perfect sync-up between the writing, performance and direction. There are also some superb, adrenaline-fuelled car chases and shoot-outs, shot in camera for added realism (no ‘Fast & Furious’ CGI here). Wright also makes excellent use of his Atlanta locations, a refreshing change from the usual New York or Los Angeles setting.
For once, here’s a summer film where you can actually believe the hype. ‘Baby Driver’ is fully deserving of all the accolades it’s been getting. It’s smart, funny, zippy and strongly character-driven (literally). It’s arguably Wright’s best film so far and is super cool enough to become a future cult item.
RATING: 4.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
THE HOUSE (USA/15A/88mins)
Directed by Andrew Jay Cohen. Starring Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel.
THE PLOT: When their daughter’s college scholarship is cancelled because of bureaucratic corruption, Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate (Amy Poehler) must find a way to pull the cash together to keep their promise to their beloved daughter. After a trip to Vegas with their recently single friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), Scott, Kate and Frank decide to set up an illegal casino I Frank’s suburban home, as a way to make money fast.
THE VERDICT: ‘The House’ not only reunites Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler for the first time since they appeared together in ‘Blades of Glory’, but it is the directorial debut of screenwriter Andrew Jay Cohen, of ‘Bad Neighbours’ fame. Written by Cohen and his ‘Bad Neighbours’ collaborator Brendan O’Brien, ‘The House’ is a film with a familiar and thin plot, but it soars to comedic heights by teaming Poehler, Ferrell and Mantzoukas up, with Nick Kroll and Rob Huebel backing them up for good measure.
Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler and Jason Mantzoukas are a dream team on the screen together. Although none of them really get a chance to flesh their roles out more than what the first appear, it is clear that these actors have fun making these suburban characters completely over the top, as the glory and riches that come with an underground casino start to go to their heads. The three bounce off one another well, and it is through their support of one another that ‘The House’ goes from awkward and over the top comedy, to a laugh fest that succeeds through being utterly silly. None of the main cast, nor Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel or Allison Tolman, move very far away from characters that we have seen them play in the past, but the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude to the casting works well, as these actor bounce off one another superbly.
Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s screenplay is not, if we are completely honest here, anything terribly original or inspiring. Scott and Kate’s daughter is more of a plot point than a character, and there are times when the pacing feels drawn out and languid, but there are plenty of laughs to be had with the film, and as soon as the comedy turns silly, this is where the film truly comes into its own. Much of the comedy feels improvised by the experienced and clever cast however, and there is plenty of slapstick throughout the film, so it is unclear just how many of the laughs come from the screenplay, and how many come from the cast bringing their own unique talents to the film.
As director, Andrew Jay Cohen does not always manage to keep film’s story – such as it is – moving, but he does pace the jokes well throughout, and keeps the audience laughing just enough so that we do not always wonder where all of this is going to end up. As mentioned, the plot gets more and more ridiculous as time goes on, but Cohen embraces this, and allows the world of the film to support and nurture this for great comedic effect.
In all, ‘The House’ is filled with slapstick and silly laughs throughout; most of which, it seems, come from the excellent teaming up of Poehler, Ferrell and Mantzoukas, who bounce off one another incredibly well, and improvise some of the best moments and lines of the film. The plot, however, is a bit of a mess, and characters are often more like plot points than people, but the sight of Will Ferrell’s giant frame trying to scramble into a small plastic wardrobe almost allows the audience to forget this.
Review by Brogen Hayes
ALONE IN BERLIN (UK|France|Germany/12/103 mins)
Directed by Vincent Perez. Starring Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson, Daniel Bruhl, Mikael Persbrandt.
THE PLOT: Berlin, 1940. The city is in a jubilant mood, with the fall of France to Nazi power. However, mechanic Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and housewife Anna Quangel (Emma Thompson) are not celebrating. Their only son has been killed in battle. Blaming Hitler and his unstoppable war machine, Otto starts a quiet act of rebellion. Disguising his handwriting, he composes anti-Hitler statements on postcards. He discreetly leaves these postcards on stairways and other visible locations in buildings across the city, with some help from Anna. Soon, these seditious cards become more common and come to the attention of police detective Escherich (Daniel Bruhl). He’s coming under pressure from SS Officer Prall (Mikael Persbrandt) to deliver the traitors as soon as possible. The net closes in on Otto and Anna…
THE VERDICT: ‘Alone In Berlin’ doesn’t start with any disclaimers or an ‘inspired by true events’ card. That’s worth bearing in mind as events unfold in this decent, mid-level wartime thriller. It’s based on the Hans Fallada novel ‘Every Man Dies Alone / Alone In Berlin’, adapted here by director Vincent Perez, Achim von Borries and Bettine von Borries. Fallada’s book was inspired by an actual wartime case from Gestapo files, involving Otto and Elise Hampel. Details are sketchy about what actually happened to them, but their act of rebellion against Nazi tyranny has been recorded by the history books.
In a sense, that liberates Perez from trying to fill in the narrative blanks. Instead, he uses the book and the slightly different names to tell a low-key but quietly powerful story about two ordinary people who were concerned about what was happening to their country. The actions of the Hampels pre-date that of anti-Hitler White Rose movement. So, they were very much on their own. Perez builds up an atmosphere of suspicion early on, with the one Jewish character facing persecution. The story is very much focused on Otto and Anna though, giving an alternative, ground-level view of German people questioning the absolute power of Adolf Hitler in their own small way.
For the most part, it’s quite an absorbing story. Gleeson and Thompson do solid work here, in an often under-played manner. There are no big fireworks or Oscar-baiting theatrics here. Instead, they play the Quangels as straightforward as possible and maintain their characters’ dignity as the net closes in fast. Bruhl’s police detective is a touch on the modern side, like a character from a 1970s film. However, he brings both desperation and humanity to what could have been a one-note role. Much likes its lead characters, it could be said that this is a small film that is unlikely to have much impact. On the other hand, it has a simple message of holding onto your beliefs and rising up to state them, whatever the potential consequences. Worth seeking out.
RATING: 3.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD (Japan/12A/129 mins)
Directed by Sunao Katabuchi. Starring Non, Yoshimasa Hosoya, Megumi Han, Natsuki Inaba, Nanase Iwai.
THE PLOT: Beginning in 1933, the film charts the life of a young girl in wartime Japan over the course of 13 years. Suzu (Non) is a wide-eyed, innocent girl still trying to understand the world she lives in. Hiroshima is home to her, but when she reaches adulthood she’s sent away to neighbouring Kure. There, a marriage has been arranged with local naval clerk Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya). He’s not the most loving of husbands, but they soon come to rely upon each other. Suzu lives with Shusaku in his family’s home and becomes a key part of the family, even if they laugh at her clumsiness and naiveté. When war comes to Kure, Suzu learns to survive despite rationing, air raids and the risk of imminent loss…
THE VERDICT: Adapted by Sunao Katabuchi from the manga series of novels by Fumiyo Kono, ‘In This Corner Of The World’ is another typically accomplished anime from Japan. Though not made by the illustrious Studio Ghibli, shades of their work can be found here, most notably ‘Grave Of The Fireflies’. That’s not to say that the film is all doom and gloom. If anything, it stays firmly upbeat and hopeful throughout.
At its core, it’s a coming-of-age drama built around a lovely lead character. As a visiting childhood friend tells Suzu, she’s surprisingly ordinary and content as a young housewife. That ordinariness is the key to the character and hence the film. It’s a simple story about an ordinary young woman living through extraordinary times. War becomes an everyday fact, but that doesn’t affect Suzu’s spirit. Director Katabuchi wisely keeps his focus firmly on Suzu throughout, seeing what happens to her new home and family through her eyes rather than digress on the nature of war. It’s enough to show a flash of light and a mushrooming cloud for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Suggestion has a far greater emotional power.
While this story could work on a basic level in live action form, the anime style is more effective and artistic. Katabuchi uses the animation to suggest the beautiful in the ugly, like Suzu imagining explosions as colourful splotches of paint in the sky. It’s a way for Suzu to remain grounded, as we follow her journey. It becomes quite riveting to watch, as we hope that Suzu will make it through. There’s more light here than dark here. It’s quite a sweet and soulful film that never loses focus. Fans of Japanese animation will certainly want to seek it out.
RATING: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
A MAN CALLED OVE (Sweden/TBC/116 mins)
Directed by Hannes Holm. Starring Rolff Lassgard, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg, Ida Engvoll, Tobias Almborg.
THE PLOT: Ove (pronounced oo-vair) is an ill-tempered and cantankerous old man. A widower who has been ‘retired’ by his company of 43 years, he lives in a small gated community. He has a fearsome reputation though. He’s a busybody who strongly objects to anyone driving around the community – and anyone who doesn’t drive a Saab either. With his wife having passed away 6 months earlier, Ove feels it’s finally time to join her. His attempt at killing himself is interrupted by the arrival of chaotic new neighbours Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), her husband Patrick (Tobias Almborg) and their two young daughters. This kick-starts Ove’s journey back to life…
THE VERDICT: In Sweden, death seems to be a pre-occupation of their national cinema. Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ is the most obvious example, but ‘A Man Called Ove’ is oddly life-affirming for its admittedly dark subject matter. Based on the best-selling book by Fredrik Backman, it focuses on Ove – Sweden’s answer to Victor Meldrew. How he got to be so tired of life and people’s foibles isn’t immediately apparent. He’s quite a character, not taking any nonsense and yet he has a role to play in his community.
Through some carefully placed (and paced) flashbacks by director Hannes Holm (who also adapted the book), we discover Ove’s story. The core of it is his relationship with his late wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll), the one person who really understood him. The young Ove is socially awkward, babbling on about car machinery on a first date – and yet Sonja identifies with him. Holm uses some current parallels with Ove’s initially frosty friendship with Parvaneh and her family. There’s a sense that there’s a good man in there, mixed up in the tantrums and acidic comments he throws out like confetti.
As the story develops, you get the sense that Ove may have given up on life, but life definitely hasn’t given up on him. Even amid a number of attempted suicide scenes, it becomes quite touching and life-affirming. Holm ensures a delicate balance between life and death in these scenes, which are darkly funny – enough to allow the audience to relax and chuckle at the weary ineptness of it all. Ove becomes so endearing as he gradually warms up and protects his neighbours that you don’t want him to die. Lassgard is superb here, cautiously keeping Ove the right side of likeable. We laugh with him rather than at him, which is the right way to play this very specific character.
It’s not hard to see why ‘A Man Called Ove’ scored two Oscar nominations earlier this year. It may ostensibly be about death, but the film is ultimately about life and all the messiness that comes with it. It’s a measure of the film’s high quality that it leaves you with both a teary eye and a smile. Go see.
RATING: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor