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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.