I am sure I’m not the first to say that Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s paean to 1970s heist films, is actually a disguised musical. The title character is never without his handy iPod; every heist and getaway is scored and edited to the rhythm of a popular song (in one sequence, the characters’ automatic weapon bursts are synced to the horns of the song “Tequila”), and the opening credits seem like a lost MGM musical number with only slightly less dancing.
Baby meets a diner waitress, Debora (Lily James), and falls in love. One of the heists goes bad. Can Baby extricate himself from his life of lawlessness?
Here’s the problem. When the film was released earlier this year, I heard lots of huggedy-buggedy from disappointed fans. Could it be that after four homeruns—four perfect films in a row (yes, I said it)—Wright had delivered a solid double? What is good in Baby Driver is very good indeed, but whenever its characters are not behind the wheel, the film founders. The dialogue is either banal or too clever by half. All of the actors but one shamelessly overact. The narrative is nothing we haven’t seen before. Every scene not involving a car chase seems to come from its own, different movie.
Things I do not like: In Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s patented brand of film fandom gets a little out of hand. Ansel Elgort bopping through the opening credits sequence, passing graffiti of the song’s lyrics, is a little much. Darling informing all of us that we all have to watch out when her lover, Buddy, “sees red,” only to have Buddy bathed in hellish red light at the film’s climax, is sophomore film school foreshadowing. For some reason, Ansel Elgort is dressed like Han Solo in Star Wars. Doc delivers a long monologue about a heist while drawing on a blackboard, and then ACTUALLY POINTS OUT TO EVERYONE how hard it is to talk and draw a good picture at the same time. The film sometimes leans too hard into its own meta-ness.
Has anyone else pointed out that, except for the car chase stuff, Baby Driver resembles a film by David Lynch? We have the ragtag bunch of criminal mopes from Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. We have the obsession with coffee and diner culture from Twin Peaks. Every time Baby and Debora share the screen together, the film seems to time hop back to the more innocent 1950s, a trope used in both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. I kept half-expecting an after-credits sequence showing Debora giving birth to the mutant baby from Eraserhead!
(Car chase sequences that stand up to the best of them.)
(Little of the menacing suspense material works. The character of Doc has a final act change of heart that is simply unfathomable.)
(Terrific stunts and violence—we expect no less from Edgar Wright.)
NOTE: My second viewing of Baby Driver was on a new 4K Blu-ray disc. For reasons my lovely wife claims to simply not understand, I recently upgraded my home system to 4K. Those bastards at Sony must know that once they sell you a goddamned 4K TV, the completists among us will need to fill it with actual 4K content. I was an early adopter of 4K television (Because, you know, we got that new couch, and so we had to get a new TV to match. Seriously, that’s how everyone does it. Honey, I swear.) I remember the first time a kindly Comcast employee visited my house to fix the cable (a biannual event where I reside)—he noticed the new TV and wittily inquired, “How the hell did they ever talk you into buying THAT THING?”
“How the hell did they talk you into taking this job as a CABLE GUY?” was my amusing riposte.
On the whole, I am happy with the 4K upgrade. I wish there were more older films available in the format, but isn’t that always the case? I recall that when Blu-ray disc was first introduced, content providers reasoned that us plain folks would not have the new players in every room, so they selflessly included a “regular” DVD in the package. Now, every 4K disc I have purchased also includes a “regular” Blu-ray disc, plus a “secret code” redeemable for a tablet- and phone-friendly digital copy. How can Sony afford to be this generous?
The 4K upgrade in picture quality varies by title. Clearly, when there is more than one factor in play in the re-mastering and production of these new discs (the age of the film, the state of the original materials, the participation of the filmmakers themselves, etc.) one can expect a wide variation in the finished product. I have now watched 12 titles in 4K.
Discs I’ve seen that show only an incremental improvement over their previous incarnations include La La Land, Goodfellas, Independence Day, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I actually thought that last title looked better in 4K on my home screen than a recent anniversary theatrical screening.
With other films, the difference is far less noticeable. Bram Stoker’s Dracula looks the same as the Blu-ray disc, so does Cabin in the Woods and the original Ghostbusters. I do not know if this is a result of a lazy transfer or if it simply speaks to just how good those original Blu-ray discs were. This might be a case of my wallet affecting my eyesight, but regular DVDs and Blu-ray discs tend to look better when played on the new 4K machine. I can either chalk this up to wishful thinking or the fact that all technology marches on, and the new player is a few years younger and “fresher” than my old one.
Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn authored an amusing series of tweets a few weeks ago, where he described going through his parents’ house and turning off the “motion smoothing” feature on all of their televisions. Motion smoothing (which also goes by names like "Motion Flow," "Auto Motion," "Smooth Motion," and "Clear Frame”) is a process in which the display unit doubles the frame rate by creating virtual frames that do not really exist. This gives the resulting picture a smooth, video quality that many find quite unnerving. When objects are in motion, this smoothing tends to create an odd effect where the speed of the camera seems variable. Some people call it the “soap opera effect;” James Gunn calls it “Satan’s Spectacles.”
The first thing I did when I hooking up my new 4K equipment was to turn this feature off.