Summer tends not to be a time for prestige pictures to come out. Still, amid the usual crop of mostly forgettable formula Hollywood product — another Pirates of the Caribbean, Mummy, Transformers (dreadful), Despicable Me, Resident Evil, Spider-Man: Homecoming (a surprisingly good reinvention featuring Tom Holland) — there are a few screen gems worth the time to consider.
Action thrillers can deliver. I’ve already praised the spy drama Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron in the title role, which had a high-profile premiere at the South by Southwest festival in March. It’s releasing on July 28. The hottest ticket at that festival was Baby Driver, which took the audience award in the Headliners section.
Helmed by Brit writer-director Edgar Wright, Baby Driver never takes its foot off the pedal from the revved-up opening percussive beats. Wright memorably recast the zombie movie with 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. Here he reboots the car-chase crime spree genre to great effect. Baby (Ansel Elgort, baby-faced except for two scars) is the ace getaway driver for a hardcore bunch of robbers working for a mastermind crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey at his most ruthless), who favours business suits to their underworld style. The main gang figures are Buddy (Jon Hamm), his squeeze Darling (Eiza González), and the trigger-happy Bats (Jamie Foxx).
Baby got into this racket by stealing money and a Mercedes from Doc. He needs to do one more job to square his debt with Doc, who relies on his “devil behind the wheel.” Baby has tinnitus as a result of a tragic childhood accident. He’s always listening to music on an iPod to drown it out. He also carries a small tape recorder to catch sounds he incorporates into a collection of personal mixtapes. Baby stashes his share of the loot under the floorboards in the apartment he shares with his foster dad, an elderly deaf mute African-American man.
Another heist and Baby starts imagining a different future when he meets and falls for Debora (Lily James), a waitress at Bo’s Diner. He even goes straight and becomes a driver for a pizza joint called GoodFellas. But the dream of escape on the open road is thwarted when Doc decides he still needs his driver. The choice is to be “behind the wheel or in a wheelchair.” That’s when the game turns increasingly murderous and chases, showdowns and shootouts follow at breakneck speed.
From start to finish the movie’s narrative pulse is scored to a killer soundtrack, with the Simon and Garfunkel tune “Baby Driver” accompanying the closing credits. The music, the mayhem and the romance are in perfect sync with the players. Forget The Fast and the Furious. This is the year’s fastest ride.
Cinema is a family affair for the Coppolas. The Tribeca festival in April held a 45th anniversary screening of The Godfather Parts I and II followed by a discussion with director Francis Ford Coppola and surviving cast members. Tribeca also presented Paris Can Wait by his 81-year-old wife, Eleanor. It’s a pleasing if slight affair in which a middle-aged woman, Anne (Diane Lane), whose marriage to movie producer husband Michael (Alec Baldwin) has become rather stale, finds herself beguiled if not seduced when agreeing to a French road trip with Michael’s charming, flirtatious associate, Jacques (Arnaud Viard). The locations are as alluring as the gourmet feasts they share (even more tantalizing than the food in Michael Winterbottom’s latest, The Trip to Spain). Yet nothing serious develops.
That is certainly not the case with the encounter of the sexes in daughter Sophia’s The Beguiled, for which she won the Cannes festival’s best director prize in May. It’s the second adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s eponymous 1966 novel set in 1864 Confederate Virginia as the Civil War rages. Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is the strong-willed headmistress of a Seminary for Young Ladies who, with another teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), cares for five girls of varying ages, isolated from the savage world of men in their Gothic sanctuary. That is until one day the youngest, Amy (Oona Laurence), finds gravely wounded Union soldier Corp. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) while in the woods gathering mushrooms. McBurney is rescued and nursed back to health. Miss Martha decides to conceal his presence from Confederate patrols and when soldiers come knocking.
To my mind the first screen version of The Beguiled by director Don Siegel in 1971, starring Clint Eastwood as McBurney and Geraldine Page as Martha, stands as a classic. Still, Coppola’s ostensibly more feminist rendering has its merits. The women are certainly beguiled by the male presence, competing for attentions, especially Edwina and the oldest girl, Alicia (Elle Fanning). Jealousies are aroused until an incident causes a change of circumstances. For McBurney and the women, Christian compassion mixes with female passions and wiles.
Also in the Cannes competition was Korean director Joon-ho Bong’s Okja, a Netflix production available online since June 29. (Grumbling about that resulted in a rule change requiring all future competition titles to screen theatrically in France.)
The movie opens in New York with a razzle dazzle announcement by Mirando Corporation’s Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton, who was in Bong’s Snowpiercer) of a 10-year competition to raise “super-piglets” in an “eco-friendly, natural, non-GMO” way. They are sent to 26 farms in 26 countries. Off we go years later to a Korean farm where an orphan girl, Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn), lives with her grandfather and dotes on her giant hippo-like super-pig named Okja (a convincing computer-generated creation).
Grandad has kept the truth from her. So she’s shocked when squeaky-voiced carnival-like TV zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives with a crew to take Okja to Seoul, then America. Mija isn’t satisfied with a gold piglet keepsake as a substitute and runs after Okja. In the ensuing wild chase scenes Mija meets masked members of the Animal Liberation Front led by Jay (Paul Dano) and becomes part of their plan to secretly record what really goes on in Mirando’s laboratories. Suffice it to say that Mirando is deep into genetic mutation for profit (the name similarity to Monsanto isn’t coincidental).
Watch this anti-corporate fable past the closing credits for a last scene of the animal liberators. One can enjoy the fantasy while wondering what kind of twisted world this is.
Last but definitely not least is writer-director David Lowery’s haunting A Ghost Story, which wowed critics at Sundance. It stars Oscar-winner Casey Affleck as a Dallas musician known only as “C,” who lives with his wife, “M” (Rooney Mara), in a house on the outskirts. Affleck and Mara were also in Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, subsequent to which he made last year’s Pete’s Dragon. Made on a much smaller, intimate scale, A Ghost Story combines elements of the fantastical and the fateful, the tragic and the supernatural.
After C’s untimely death in a car crash, he rises in spectral form, returning to watch over a grieving M. His presence, invisible to her, appears absurdly simple — a white sheet with cutout eye holes like a Halloween costume. But there’s nothing simple about what follows. As C inhabits the afterlife — sometimes with other spirits, possessing paranormal properties, bearing silent witness — there are flashbacks to the couple’s life together, scenes of a distraught M coping with loss, and then life moving on with time passing as it must. Other characters enter the picture. Especially memorable is a noisy scene in which one played by Will Oldham as Bonnie “Prince” Billy delivers a rambling monologue.
The movie, with its spare design and evocative moods (shot in a vintage 4:3 aspect ratio), becomes a profound soulful meditation on the mortality and mystery of the human condition, marked by the passage of lives lived between past and future. Hypnotic and poetic, this story casts a lingering spell.