Crazy Knights, Crazy Bachelorettes and Crazy Driving

By BILL GEIGER | Jul 12, 2017

I think it’s safe to say the summer movie season has hit its stride this week. Director Michael Bay’s usual summer blockbuster, another “Transformers” flick, this one subtitled “The Last Knight,” blew the doors open last week, and it’s an extravaganza the likes of which puts all the other “Transformers” films on notice. These are literally in a class by themselves – and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

But that’s not the only film we’ll discuss this week. Quirky director Edgar Wright gives us “Baby Driver,” a frenetic, action-packed, tune-filled rouser of a flick that does not quite quit until near the end, but even with that it’s a pretty solid film. Our third, an up and down comedy of sorts, is “Rough Night,” a female “Hangover”-type flick that is more dud than delight.

If anyone can figure out the story in “Transformers: The Last Knight,” drop me a line and let me know. It was the most convoluted, complicated and tortuous plotline I’ve encountered in at least the last three summers, since “Transformers” number four, “Age of Extinction,” came out in 2014. It has been 10 years since the birth of the franchise, and the five films that have been born during that time have become progressively more intricate.

This one begins during King Arthur’s time, and as the famous knights of the round table gather to do battle with the Saxon hordes besieging their royal neighborhood and gaining the upper hand in the battle, Arthur (played by Liam Garrigan) awaits his friend, confidant and adviser Merlin (an unrecognizable Stanley Tucci), who is on his way, but has to make a quick stop first.

Merlin drinks too much, according to the other knights, and he is not trustworthy. But Merlin has a secret; he really does not have magic, but a Transformer dude provided him with a special staff that he can wield and do amazing things. Wait a minute! What did I just say?

What are the Transformers doing in Arthurian England? What do they have to do with that particular timeframe, and how much of Merlin’s magic can we attribute to them? Apparently the big Autobots had everything to do with Arthur’s power. (I looked hard for Charlie Hunnam, who was a pretty good Arthur in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” Alas, I could not find him.)

And so, when Arthur convenes his round table knights, there are Transformer knights there, too, and the power of Merlin’s staff is much sought after. Of course, the Decepticons want the staff, and they have Megatron, who leads the way to find it after making a deal with the TRF, the Transformers Reaction Force, a semi-militaristic group created after the destruction of Hong Kong in the 2014 film.

The goal of the TRF is to search and destroy all Transformers that they may come across, good guys and bad guys. There are still a few good guys left, and they’re all hanging around with Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), who has gone into hiding trying to protect his big Autobots from the hands of Megatron and his crew.

As the TRF launch what they hope is the last major offensive against Cade and his group, he gets whisked away to Merry Olde England, where he falls in with one Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) and Arthurian scholar Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock). Meanwhile, Optimus Prime has been doing some freelancing of his own, and he is drawn back to his home world, Cybertron (actually, he crashes into it), by the mysterious Quintessa, who apparently built Cybertron and as well as Optimus.

Quintessa bears an eerie resemblance to the Borg queen on “Star Trek, The Next Generation.” She sends Optimus to find that staff of Merlin, feeling that the bearer of that staff would have great power. She also puts Optimus under her spell, or her sway, or whatever. She’s his maker, and he’s bound to follow her. Meanwhile, Cybertron, the Transformers’ home world, is hurtling toward Earth so quickly that in three days, it will impact the surface. That can’t be a good thing.

So Cade’s in England, his merry band of survivalists are battling Megatron and his hench-transformers, unless what might have happened is that since Cade’s not there to fight, all other battles between the TRF and the ’Bots, or Megatron’s crew and the Cade-less forces, are called off until Cade can come back. Sure, that’s it, they all go into suspended animation until the life of the party, Cade, returns.

There are, by the way, weak attempts at humor occurring throughout the film, but not usually in the middle of the battles. The best humorous scenes are with Anthony Hopkins, who is far too serious and important an actor to be stuck in scenes with Marky Mark. But the old guy has some fun with his role, and easily steals all the scenes he’s in.

It gets really complex toward the end. Cade and Vivian go off looking for Merlin’s staff, and I’m totally resisting using all the jokes I can think of concerning Merlin’s staff. Where’s big ol’ Dwayne Johnson when you need him? The staff is buried with Merlin, deep below the ocean. The TRF boys are in hot pursuit, having caught on to the England side of the story. And just when you thought the story was settling down, big ol’ Optimus Prime comes aboard and takes the staff, once found. Damn, I hate when that happens.

The story shifts from deep below the Atlantic to outer space as all the characters follow Merlin’s staff. Cade fights; the other Autobots are on board now and fighting with Cade. Colonel Bill Lennox (Josh Duhamel) fights he was a secret Army plant in the TRF, but has come on over to Cade’s side. Even Vivian fights, all the while falling for Cade. Well, who wouldn’t, since ol’ Marky Mark has considerable charm? Well, maybe not Sir Edmund.

So the remains of Cybertron come crashing toward Earth, with Quintessa aboard and hoping to use the magic of the staff to destroy Earth. Optimus attempts to get the staff to her, but Cade and Vivian have different ideas. The story comes together toward the end, and instead of Hong Kong being destroyed, it’ss Cybertron. I watched the film in 3D, and I have to say the ending was pretty spectacular, especially in that enhanced format. Was it worth the price? Who knows? I’m sure Transformers fans would like it.

For all us other people, I don’t know. It’s an intricate story to follow. Is there a sense of truthfulness? Does it follow how things usually work? No, not really. Even though we may wink a little at the purple patches in the piece and willingly suspend our disbelief, there are still elements in the film, especially in the England scenes, that are just too much to swallow. Like all the other “Transformer” flicks I’ve seen, this one is difficult to parse. But, at least it gives me a chance to flex some writing muscle. I have to think of all the different ways I didn’t like it. So it goes.

*   *   *

The term “Rough Night” does double duty, as both the title of a film and the physical experience of all the people watching it. The flick stars Scarlett Johansson and four other women who are her friends along her various stages of her life and who gather for a bachelorette party on the eve of her wedding. Alice, Blair, Frankie and Pippa, played with varying degrees of success by Jillian Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Ilana Glazer and Kate McKinnon, respectively, all try to get the strait-laced state senator wanna-be to break from her politician mold and let loose for a fun-filled weekend.

They get her to break from her mold, but the weekend is anything but fun-filled. Jess’ (Johansson) campaign is troubled, and her approval ratings need some serious bolstering. But this is the bachelorette weekend, and Alice has planned the party down to the nanosecond, and very clearly she is the boss. This doesn’t sit very well with Blair and Frankie, who would like to have some input, too. Only Pippa, who is from Australia, is seemingly immune from the bickering that goes on among the ladies as they gear up for the weekend.

They start to party, and eventually, after some important sniffing from an odd white powder, they get Jess to unwind. Frankie has ordered Jess a male stripper, who comes in but seems very reticent. After a dance number and an animated Alice literally throwing herself on top of the stripper, he falls, hits his head and dies. Nothing destroys the good mood of a party like a death. They essentially spend the rest of the film trying to figure out what to do with, and how to get rid of, the corpse.

Director Lucia Aniello deftly intercuts the scenes of the corpse-laden women and their difficult time trying to unburden themselves of the body, with Jess’ fiancé, Peter (Paul W. Downs), and his buddies at his bachelor party, sitting down at a wine demonstration, learning what wines pair with a nice cheese fondue. While the girls are raucous, the men are refined, taken to having round-table discussions about various topics.

Jess, upset about the dead stripper and unable to think of anything to do, refuses Peter’s calls, then takes a call but answers his questions so cryptically and confusingly that he thinks she wants to call the wedding off. Peter is crestfallen, but after a good talk with his buddies, decides to drive down to Miami to find Jess. His friend persuades him to wear an adult diaper since he will not want to stop on his way but get right down there and win her back. No one, unfortunately, tells him to put his pants on, so he runs around in a diaper, sans pants, which is kind of funny.

“Rough Night” might have also been called “Rough Cut,” and the film would have benefited from another two or three runs through the editing process. It surely could have used a tightening up, especially in the last reel, where the ending is broadcast from the midpoint on. Is it worth the money? Well, no it isn’t, since it’s mainly a two- or three-joke movie. This one might be funnier streaming about six months from now.

Is there verisimilitude? Again, no, not really. Parts of it have it, but there are too few of them. Alice’s takeover of the party at the beginning and her insistence on running everything were painful to watch. Perhaps it was Bell’s acting chops, or lack thereof, or the film’s insistence on bringing that part of the plot to a conclusion, but it seemed forced, and you wonder if people really act like that.

Only Kate McKinnon was really funny. The Aussie actress was on her game in this one. I didn’t like the character she portrayed in “Ghostbusters,” but her Pippa, here all crazy and wild, made the film. Almost every scene she was in was funny.

*   *   *

“Baby Driver,” a highly stylized film from Edgar Wright, bursts on the screen to loud music as a baby-faced driver (Ansel Elgort) takes three bank robbers on the ride of their lives, the getaway driver who can shift gears and double clutch, pull off 360s and squeak through a tight opening, all to the tunes of his magical soundtrack, a play list he concocted just for this job.

As the bank robbers can pull off their jobs well, so does Baby pull off his getaway drives. As Doc (Kevin Spacey), the leader of the “gang,” tells it, Baby was in the back seat of a terrible accident in which his parents were killed, and the resulting trauma demands that he wear sunglasses and listen to music constantly. Music is his release, the only time the voices stop.

It’s our release, too, for as the tension mounts – and in “Baby Driver” it starts tense, from “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob and Earl, to “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, to “Nowhere to Run,” the hit by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, along with about 50 other songs – music is as integral to the film as the dialogue. In fact, you could call “Baby Driver” a musical with a lot of car chases in between.

Baby owes Doc some kind of debt, and repays him by being his getaway driver. Doc likes to rotate his crews often, and every time a new crew member comes along Baby gets a thorough once-over. But he persists and does the tough driving, and keeps coming nearer and nearer to the end of his debt, as he believes.

However, the newer gang members, including Griff (Jon Bernthal) and later Bats (Jamie Foxx), are sinister and don’t trust Baby. Even when he drives his getaway car like the wind, the trust issue is still a major obstacle between Baby and the rest of the gang. Only Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his gal, Darling (Eiza González), who are often along with several other new members, trust him.

For Baby’s side, he really doesn’t care whether anyone trusts him, since his driving does the talking. Once, after Doc sets up an elaborate heist, Bats notices Baby boppin’ to the beat with both ear buds in, and challenges him to repeat everything Doc said. Baby does so, right down to the voice inflection. So the question has to arise: Is Baby some kind of idiot savant, firmly entrenched in the autism spectrum? Some things point to the affirmative, others to the negative.

He meets a girl named Debora (Lily James) at a late-night restaurant, who is intrigued by his music (he’s always listening to music, always with his ear buds on), and wants to get to know him. At one point, Baby tells her that he’s said more to her in this one night than he has in the past week to anybody, and that’s kind of admitting his quiet behavior is abnormal and maybe even veering toward the spectrum.

But Wright gives us his background very slowly in the film through black and white flashbacks. His mother was a singer and his father a musician, but somewhere along the way their marriage took a turn for the worse. In fact, with Baby in the backseat, one of their fights precipitated a crash, with tragic consequences. 

“Baby Driver’s” ending occurs about 15 minutes before the film actually closes. The final act is the only thing that detracts from this little gem. The tension and excitement part of the film concludes first, then what appears to be a tacked-on epilogue kind of thing plays out, perhaps satisfying the Hollywood suits who would have demanded it.

Elgort and James are phenomenal, especially James, who at first abhors the violent life that Baby leads, then comes to accept it, and lastly even to take part in it. Elgort’s face is surprisingly youthful, almost teenager-like. But he has a steely resolve that allows him a great storehouse of courage, and he needs it working with this crew. Hamm is always good, but especially so here when he goes from laid-back dude to crazed warrior.

Before the story commenced, Edgar Wright himself appears on screen and thanks everyone in the audience for watching “Baby Driver” on the big screen, and not waiting for it to stream on their laptop or watching it on DVD. In response I would say, “You’re welcome, Edgar, and thank you for creating (and writing, and directing) a top-notch exciting feature, with lots of good music.”

So is it worth the money? Absolutely. It would be worth it if each ticket cost $50. Is the verisimilitude there? Yes, again. This was a straightforward film, and although many of the characters are more like caricatures, what they do and how they do it is pretty realistic. Even the driving, which is fanciful for the most part, is done with a lot of spunk.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.