HOORAY FOR THE RED, WHITE AND BRITISH

The most typically American movie opening this Fourth of July weekend is Baby Driver, made by a quintessentially British auteur — Edgar Wright, of Shaun of the Dead fame. 

It’s no secret that we’re anglophiles here at The Thread (even though one of us was born in Ireland). And when we see American culture reflected back in a British mirror – well, sometimes it seems like those English directors love America better than we love ourselves. 

This week — definitive American movies that were made by UK directors. 

 

Baby Driver
B
ABY DRIVER (2017)

Edgar Wright had barely finished his genre-steeped, culty, and ultra-British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead (2004) when Universal offered him a big-budget job directing comic book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs The World(2009).

Wright enhanced his homeland cred by going back repeatedly to finish his UK-set “Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy” (Shaun, Hot Fuzz (2007), The World’s End(2013).   But he was also dating Anna Kendrick and co-writing The Adventures of Tin-Tin and Ant-Man, anchoring him firmly in LA

Baby Driver is a hybrid heist movie/romance, softer-edged than Tarantino but equally soundtrack-driven and film-buff referential.

Baby-faced Ansel Elgort (The Fault In Our Stars) plays a moody savant getaway driver whose tortured genius is fueled by an iPod for each mood and occasion.  He owes his soul (for at least one last job) to boss Kevin Spacey.  But things are complicated by a whack-job thug (Jamie Foxx) and a waitress named Debra (Lily James) who reminds him of his mom.

P.S. – if you happen to be in NYC this week, Edgar Wright has curated a series of Heist Films at BAMcinématek

YouTube

 

 

North By Northwest
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

By the time he made North By Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock was an American citizen, a huge TV celebrity, and had been making movies longer in Hollywood than in England.

Hitchcock loved iconic settings; Cary Grant’s smug but charming ad man Roger O. Thornhill flees from The Plaza to the UN to Mount Rushmore – stopping along the way at a deserted, treeless Midwestern landscape.

Thornhill is being hunted by foreign agents who mistake him for a spy – who in the end doesn’t even exist.  The cool Hitchcockian blonde is Eva Marie Saint, who despite working for the enemy ends up in Thornhill’s arms.

This just may be our favorite Hitchcock film, but we’re hard pressed to say why.  Maybe the Americana, maybe the simplicity.  Maybe it’s just that in his mid-50s he was at the height of his craftsmanship.

And on a run…the film before this was Vertigo (1958), and the next would be Psycho (1960), which Hitchcock made on a TV budget and went on to be a global blockbuster, making him extremely wealthy and allowing him to eventually own a third of MCA Universal, the studio he worked for.

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Thelma Louise
THELMA AND LOUISE (1991)

 Even after he had become passionately attached to Callie Khouri’s script, Ridley Scott was not his own first choice to direct Thelma and Louise.  Scott had years of highest-end commercials under his belt, and was famous for his darkly stylish sci-fi flicks –blockbuster creature shock-fest Alien (shot in London), and the considerably less-successful Blade Runner (L.A.).  He was also seen as pretty macho — for a Brit anyway.

Eventually he realized that he was so invested in the project that he had to direct it himself.   And when he did, the result was yet another  cinematic landmark.  But rather than being set in a shadowy future, it was set the sun-drenched cutting edge of the present.  The result was a feminist road moviestatement that redefined a classic American genre, redefined the kind of characters that women could play, and took Scott’s career new heights.

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American Beauty
AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)

 Sam Mendes is really a theater director.  But a theater director who won an Oscar for his first film (American Beauty) and is one of two directors ever to have done two James Bond films.  Go figure.

Alan Ball wrote American Beauty as a spec script to get himself out of the sitcom business.  He never thought it would get made, but it did, and empowered him to become the moving force behind HBO series like Six Feet Under and True Blood.

At a young age Mendes was a founder of London’s Donmar Warehouse theater; after his Broadway success with Cabaret (Alan Cumming version) he took a trip to Hollywood, was offered the chance to direct, and pulled American Beauty out of a pile on an agent’s desk.

Even though it’s not a pure genre piece, American Beauty taps a well-mined vein in American film: the struggle to find yourself when you’re lost in the existential desert of the suburban American Dream.

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FEAR AND LOATHING
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LOS VEGAS (1998)

 Both Scorsese and Oliver Stone tried and failed, but Terry Gilliam was born to make this movie.  And, like the two leads — Johnny Depp and Benecio del Toro — you can’t imagine anyone else pulling off Hunter Thompson’s this drug-fueled, gonzo tour de frenzy.

For us, this movie captures the Vegas zeitgeist in a way that no other film has: utter chaotic decadence.  Even though it relates more closely to real life than any of Gilliam’s other movies, the result is less structured and tenuously tethered to reality.

Fear and Loathing was widely panned upon release, but with every year that goes by it becomes more beloved.  Beloved may be a weird word to use about a movie this debauched; but it’s clear from fan reviews that for those who have been there – in body or in spirit — it’s an irreplaceable document of a certain state of mind.  The film’s even gotten a Criterion Collection release, which is akin to being accepted into the Library of Congress – but more exclusive.

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The Grifters
THE GRIFTERS (1990)

Like songs, some movies mark a very particular moment in time.  My Beautiful Laundrette is one of those movies.  For us it marked the first moment when a broader definition of racial and sexual identity became an ordinary part of cultural discourse — for the first time not as some special case, but just as everyday facts of life, like hair color or eye color.

So for some strange reason we’ve always been happy that Stephen Frears found Hollywood a nice place to visit but never really came to live there.

The word “grifter” is a mashup of “grafter” and “drifter”, American circus slang for the smalltime con artists who followed circuses in the early 20th century.  It’s a person who lives by being smarter and more charming than their marks – and yet is temperamentally unable to think any bigger than one move ahead.

It’s an amazing, bright, bleak movie, our most favorite of many favorite Anjelica Huston performances, and with John Cusack (they do look alike, don’t they?) and Annette Bening, a near perfect three-hander.

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KEEPING IT SIMPLE

 

Over the weekend we took a road trip and on the way back listened to an old favorite by Blue October: “Jump Rope”. 

The chorus goes: “Up. Down. Up. Down. / Life’s like a Jump Rope…”  

Feeling that way these days – two weeks ago, we swore off online news and decided to spend the summer reading nothing but (printed) books.  And then last week, the Comey Circus comes to town and we’re glued to the newsfeeds, all atwitter with hope and schadenfreude.   

 So this week we’re taking another swing at simplicity, starting with the new indie release, Maudie.   

 

 

Maudie
MAUDIE (2017)
 

Maudie is a biographical film about Maude Lewis, a woman living in a  little Nova Scotia town in Nova Scotia who becomes famous as a folk artist.

Maud Dowly is a small woman with a playful temperament who has been afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis since her teens.  In her 30’s she finds herself in need of money and answers a notice placed the local grocery shop by a gruff fish-seller named Everett Lewis.  Lewis is looking for a housekeeper, but they end up marrying and living together in his tiny house – giving the locals and Maud’s family plenty to talk about.

Maud starts painting simple, cheerful subjects and gradually becomes famous, first locally and eventually across North America – Richard Nixon buys a painting for the white house.

Everett is played by Ethan Hawke, who has become so entertaining and peripatetic that we keep our eyes peeled for anything he takes on.  This is a fun change-up for him.  Maud is played by Sally Hawkins, one of those incredibly versatile British actresses who has appeared in everything from Shakespeare to Godzilla.  She started out as a Mike Leigh regular, and garnered some buzz as a vaguely similar character in Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky.

The director here is Irishwoman Aisling Walsh, who has been directing prestigious UK TV series for years (Trial and Retribution, Fingersmith, A Poet In New York), but didn’t break out in the feature realm until the 2003 award-winning Song for a Raggy Boy.

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happy-go-lucky-2
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (2008)

For us, Mike Leigh always conjures kitchen sink realism — Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake.   But even Naked is technically a black, black comedy – and then there’s Topsy Turvy, Abigail’s Party, and this one: Happy-Go-Lucky.

Sally Hawkins plays Pauline “Poppy” Cross, a grade school teacher who’s almost pathologically optimistic — Kimmy Schmidt’s even more upbeat British cousin.

When Poppy’s bicycle is stolen, it means it’s time to learn to drive.  The driving teacher (Steven Marsan) is her (bi)polar opposite – brimming over with prejudice, bile, and conspiracy theories.  Naturally, he falls in love with her.  But Leigh’s point isn’t that she’s a fool.  Poppy makes it clear that this is not a romance that is meant to be.

The movie leaves you wondering – is it all about serotonin?  Or is being ‘realistic’ – as Poppy’s sister urges her to become – a choice?  And maybe not such a good one.

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GÉRARD DEPARDIEU AND GISÈLE CASADESUS

This Gerard Depardieu starrer turns the existential question into a critical one.  Many writers thought it was contrived and sentimental.  But we always check out Amazon reviews too, and “real people” there  give it raves and 4.6 stars.  Free, incidentally, on Amazon Prime.

The French title is La Tête en Fiche – an expression that means something like “an uncultivated mind”.  Depardieu plays a marginally literate handyman with a heart of gold who meets a highly cultured 95-year-old scientist on a park bench.

She is reading Camus’ The Plague, piques his interest, and starts reading it to him. The language and the ideas in the book fire his imagination, and the two start meeting regularly.   When her eyesight fails he struggles, with increasing success, to read to her.  And when she is sent off to a cheaper retirement home, he tracks her down and brings her to live in his house.

Here at The Thread we tend to fixate on actors, and will watch (almost) anything with Depardieu in it.  Marguerite is played by French national treasure Gisèle Casadesus.  Casadesus is still alive, now 103.  She started acting when she joined the Comédie-Française in 1939 at age 20, and has been at it ever since.

Is the film sentimental?  Inevitably.  Will you really care?  Probably not.

 Amazon

 

 

forrest gump
FORREST GUMP (1994)

Since we moved back to the East Coast, Friday nights have become family movie nights, complete with takeout pizza.  The challenge is finding titles that everybody will enjoy, from ages 10 to 13 to too-old-to-tell.

As it turns out, John Hughes and Tom Hanks are consistent winners.  So a month or so ago we rewatched Forrest Gump.

Home run – and as it turns out, for all concerned.  A revelation for the kids and a returning pleasure for us parents.

Like it’s star, the movie accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.  Plus, we realized that we kind of buy the moral of the story: if you just remember that “stupid is as stupid does”, history will take care of itself.  Now, if we could just successfully internalize that message…

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Of Mice and Men
OF MICE AND MEN (1992)

There are two eminent versions of this Steinbeck classic.  One of the things we’ve learned from our Friday night movies is that any film pre-1970 is a gamble and pre-1960 is an extremely specialized taste.  If you share that taste, you might want to revisit the 1939 Oscar winner, starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.

But for this week’s list, we chose the Gary Sinese’s version.  There’s the Sinese/Gump connection; and we  like the fact that John Malkovich, who specializes in egghead villains, here plays the simple man-child, Lenny.

Steinbeck’s fable feels inevitably retro – and here we like that tension between the simpler-time, simpler-place and the contemporary actors.  And that even with the whiff of anachronism, the story remains inherently heart-wrenching, Steinbeck’s patented tragic disconnect between the moral simplicity we long for and the complexity of the real world.

This was Sinese’s second feature as director and he hasn’t directed anything since.  He had loved the novel since boyhood.  A few years earlier he played Tom Joad in the 1988 Steppenwolf Theater production (staged by the brilliant Frank Galati, one of our mentors at Northwestern).  The screenplay  by Horton Foote hews closely to the book.  And the acting is appropriately pared down from the sometimes hammy 1939 version.

We didn’t know it until we started researching today, but Sinese is a staunch Republican.  He supported both McCain and Romney – but has disavowed Trump.

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Slingblade
SLINGBLADE (1996) 

As you may have noticed, our subtext has veered from happiness to morality – simplicity as the moral compass in a world of spin.

We keep thinking of couple lines from our favorite Yeats poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Which seems to be one of the few sentiments the two ends of the political spectrum share.

Billy Bob Thornton wrote, directed, and starred in Slingblade, another moral fable; and it became his breakthrough achievement.  Karl is a simple character whose simplicity is transformed into a superpower: an unerring ability to serve his vision of good with an intensity denied to anyone with a more complex view of the world.

When Karl summarily executes Dwight Yoakam’s abusive redneck boyfriend, he acts with a redemptive purity that these days seems beyond the reach of even superheroes.  You have to turn to  Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino for another character who’s so sure of what’s right and so willing to sacrifice his life for it.

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