Monthly Archives: July 2017

  • Baby Driver

    Edgar Wright (2017)

    A challenging prospect and experience for me.  While millions get an adrenaline rush watching car chases on screen, they’ve always bored me stiff – all the way back to Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), though I didn’t dare admit it at the time.  Nowadays, I mentally switch off while they’re happening, telling myself they’ll be over soon.  Deciding to ignore the car chases in Baby Driver, however, is rather like blanking out the numbers in a musical – a type of film with which Edgar Wright’s action movie has other things in common.  The title character, a young getaway driver for the varying teams of robbers recruited by a crime boss, doesn’t only spend his waking life attached to an iPod; at the start of the film, he also prances down the street to the rhythm of the music he’s hearing.  The shootouts, of which there are several, are choreographed too – gunshots are synchronised with the beat of whatever’s on the soundtrack.  Besides, the writer-director’s unrelenting, eye-catching smartness and shallow wit bring to mind Damien Chazelle and La La Land.

    I watched Baby Driver under the misapprehension that I’d not seen an Edgar Wright film before.  It transpires that this is rather the first one I’ve seen out:  I’d forgotten that Wright directed Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010).  I knew he’d made his name internationally with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which (as I understand it) mix genres and derive their comedy largely from the mismatch of English locations and characters on the one hand, Hollywood genre conventions on the other.  Of course Wright isn’t obliged to repeat this formula – it’s good, in principle, that he hasn’t – but I didn’t get what he was after instead in Baby Driver, which is steeped in awareness of other movies but set in Atlanta, Georgia and peopled entirely by Americans.   In just about the opening shot, we watch three robbers approach the place they’re about to rob.  Baby (Ansel Elgort) waits outside, ready to drive them away when the deed is done.  The actors playing this trio (Jon Bernthal, Eiza González and Jon Hamm) are so self-consciously cool they look to be parodying cool.  The same goes for Ansel Elgort, at least in the early stages, and others in the course of the picture.  But the parodic element of Baby Driver proves to be as superficial as its other elements – the distinction between echt cool and cool manqué gets blurred.

    In their showdown at the climax to the film, Baby insists to his boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) that ‘You and I are a team’.  Plenty in the audience will find Doc’s reply – ‘Don’t feed me any more lines from Monsters, Inc. It pisses me off’ – reassuringly knowing.  Yet Edgar Wright means us to be charmed by Baby’s romance with the waitress Debora (Lily James) and by his essential ‘innocence’ – there’s little evidence of irony here.  When he’s eventually brought to trial, after all the baddies have been killed off, a succession of defence witnesses – two women Baby’s encountered in his criminal activities and his foster father Joseph (C J Jones) – testify to the young man’s basic decency.  This is not enough to prevent a guilty verdict and prison sentence but it helps qualify Baby for early parole – and allows his happy reunion with Debora at the very end of the film’s very long conclusion.  Baby Driver is an unpleasant mixture of jocose nihilism – people, like cars, are trashed with impunity – and sentimentality.  I thought I could empathise at least with Baby’s tinnitus but his medical complaint turns out to be a dreary metaphor.  The ear injury is the legacy of the car crash that orphaned Baby when he was a child.  He keeps having flashbacks to it, struggling to suppress the visual memory as the sounds from his iPod drown out his aural buzz.  In addition to listening to music, Baby records and remixes snatches of day-to-day conversation on retro equipment.  But among his huge stockpile of audio cassettes, the most precious, labelled ‘Mom’, features his late mother singing.

    Ansel Elgort, gruesome at first, is better when he takes off his shades and he and/or Baby stop posing – but not better enough.  Lily James is a good actress but works as hard to be radiantly ingenuous as others in the cast do to be insouciant. The two successful performances are those of Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx.  The latter is the only one of the robbers who’s naturally hip.  He’s able to make cool the starting point of his characterisation rather than its main objective.  Spacey, although predictably cast as the verbally merciless Doc, is effortlessly authoritative and his appearance – the anonymising spectacles, the folds and pouches of the flesh on his pasty face – is magnetically unattractive.  The film’s use of music is a clever idea and part of the great success that it’s enjoying:  this is entirely a matter of personal taste but there wasn’t much of the eclectic soundtrack (supplied by T Rex, The Commodores, Barry White and Queen – among many others) that I enjoyed.

    What I think of as Chazelle touches include both individual details – a revolving record on a turntable that segues into clothes whirling in a laundrette machine – and more expansive calculations.  Baby’s foster father is (a) elderly, (b) African-American and (c) a deaf mute:  (a) + (b) + (c) = vulnerably sympathetic x 3.  Joseph’s disability also allows for twofold visual dynamism – signing and striking subtitles, in the form of balloons coming out of his and Baby’s mouths.  There’s no denying that, even though the film’s attempts to be cool are as strenuous as they’re slippery, it’s been very widely received as such.   Whatever Edgar Wright set out to do, he’s clearly achieved a desirable outcome critically and commercially.  Baby Driver currently has a 94% fresh rating, from 255 reviews, on Rotten Tomatoes.  It cost $34m to make; a month after opening in the US and the UK, it’s taken nearly $140m.  Many contributors to the above statistics no doubt really do find the picture a blast (the spectacular editing is by Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos).  I think there are also a fair few who are nervous about appearing uncool.

    26 July 2017

  • Foreign Correspondent

    Alfred Hitchcock (1940)

    This excellent film was Hitchcock’s second in America, released just four months after Rebecca.  The BFI programme note was a piece written by James Naremore for The Criterion Collection, which accurately describes Foreign Correspondent as:

    ‘… akin to [Hitchcock’s] celebrated British chase films of the 1930s, a mixture of danger, romance and comedy set against a background of international intrigue … rather like a way station between The 39 Steps (1935) and North by Northwest (1959).’

    One feature that distinguishes this picture from the two that Naremore mentions by name is the real urgency of its ‘background of international intrigue’.  The story is set in the summer of 1939 and reaches its climax in the hours leading up to and following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany following the invasion of Poland.  The ‘War in Europe’, as World War II still was at the time Foreign Correspondent was made, dominates the plotting and eventually takes over the film.  In a postscript to the main action, the journalist hero Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) has returned to London as a war correspondent.  He makes a radio broadcast to his fellow Americans as a Luftwaffe attack begins.  Jones evokes Churchill’s ‘lights are going out’ speech of 1938 (itself an echo of Sir Edward Grey’s ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe’, on the eve of the Great War) as he urges his country to ‘keep the lights burning’ – as an air raid extinguishes them in the studio from which he’s broadcasting.  The US national anthem accompanies the closing credits.  The bombing of London actually started a few days after the premiere of Foreign Correspondent in August 1940.

    The film includes several brilliant and exciting episodes.  An assassination in Amsterdam, carried out by a gunman posing as a news photographer, his weapon concealed by his camera; the ensuing pursuit of the assassin under serried ranks of umbrellas; a sequence inside and outside a Dutch windmill whose sails move with an eerie sound and against the wind.  The suspense of the repeated attempts made by a bogus bodyguard to push Johnny Jones to his death from the tower of Westminster Cathedral is nearly intolerable.  These are all such highlights that the more extended climax – aboard an aircraft shelled over the Atlantic by a German destroyer, then in the ocean where the survivors keep afloat on the plane’s wreckage – is at risk of being an anti-climax, though it’s remarkably coherent and, for a film nearly eighty years old, convincing.   Foreign Correspondent is consistently atmospheric, right from the opening shots of the NYC skyline and the somewhat sci-fi-ominous look of the building that houses the offices of the fictional New York Globe.

    The Globe’s editor (Harry Davenport) is worried by the political crisis in Europe and frustrated that his readers aren’t getting a penetrating account of it.  He decides the skills of an investigative reporter are needed and that Johnny Jones is the man for the job.  Crime reporter Jones is so hands-on that he punched a policeman in the course of his latest journalistic coup; when he’s summoned to the editor’s office, he expects the sack rather than a foreign correspondent assignment in Europe, under the pen name Huntley Haverstock.   There are few actors I enjoy watching more than Joel McCrea.  His humorous, straight-as-a-die innocence and unshowy intrepidity enable him easily to manage the different registers of the action.  Though their shipboard marriage proposal scene together is lovely, Laraine Day is, for the most part, rather a dreary romantic partner for McCrea.  To be fair to Day, the script requires Carol Fisher to make such abrupt transitions in her feelings about Jones-Haverstock that it’s hard for her to create a stable character.

    Carol is the daughter of Herbert Marshall’s Stephen Fisher, leader of the ‘Universal Peace Party’:  he turns out to be anything but a pacifist albeit a somewhat conflicted traitor.  George Sanders is a journalist called Scott ffolliott (‘Is it pronounced with a stutter’? asks Jones after ffolliott has spelt out his surname).  The ambiguity that Marshall and Sanders bring to their roles pleasingly reinforces the sustained who’s-fooling-who thread of the narrative.  Edmund Gwenn, a startling combination of genial and brutal, is superb as the would-be homicidal bodyguard supplied for Jones by Fisher.  Albert Bassermann makes a strong impression as the elderly Dutch diplomat Van Meer and Robert Benchley is very funny as Stebbins, a dolefully superannuated American journalist in London.  Hitchcock appears as, appropriately enough, a man in the street reading a newspaper.

    Robert Benchley also gets a credit for dialogue, along with James Hilton.  The main screenwriters were Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison.  In spite of the potent topicality of the story, the inspiration for the screenplay was a 1935 memoir, Personal History, by the journalist Vincent Sheean.  Admirers of Foreign Correspondent included Josef Goebbels, who described it as ‘a masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries’.

    22 July 2017

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