Mid-summer tends to feel like a cinematic wasteland. Most of the major studio tent poles have been released and we are still a month or two away from the more serious films of Oscar season. Three movies aimed to inject some originality into theaters and all were awarded with box office success beyond their initial projections.
Baby Driver had been hyped for months. After receiving a rapturous reception at South by Southwest earlier this spring, expectations couldn’t have been higher. In hindsight, it was impossible for it not to be a little bit of a letdown. Baby Driver aims for a fast paced heist movie, but gets bogged down with schmaltz. The car chases, most filmed without green screen, sometimes with director Edgar Wright strapped to the outside of the car, are truly thrilling and where the film really shines. Elsewhere it doesn’t seem to be able to decide what it wants to be. Kevin Spacey is excellent as the crime boss that Ansel Elgort’s titular Baby owes a debt to; he is the perfect actor to deliver Wright’s snappy dialogue, but the movie that he is acting in is light years away from the shoehorned in rom-com starring Elgort and the lovely but underdeveloped Lily Collins. For a movie that was expected to be so cool, it comes off more as cheesy. I would happily trade every scene of Elgort dancing with joy in his apartment after meeting Collins for another of Jon Hamm, at his best since Mad Men, as one half of a Bonnie and Clyde-esq duo. Baby Driver isn’t fleshed out enough for us to be invested in its characters, especially the blank Elgort, and doesn’t lean hard enough into style to distract from that.
The first live action movie I ever loved was Spider-Man. I remember asking my dad to let me skip an outing with a friend so we could go see the second installment. During the Andrew Garfield led and critically panned Amazing Spider-Man 2, the death of Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy made me cry so hard I had to take off my IMAX glasses for the remainder of the movie. In spite of all of that, I was skeptical when Spider-Man:Homecoming was announced. It is the third reboot of the franchise in less than two decades. If superheroes are modern mythology, then Spider-Man is the story of Zeus, the one that we all know by heart. The last thing that we need is yet another origin story with each beat more predictable than the last. I saw Spider-Man:Homecoming twice in one weekend. It was easily my most joyful movie going experience this year. It eschews Peter Parker’s path to becoming Spider-Man, that we all know so well, save for a reference or two. The film’s most recognizable face is Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark acting here as Parker’s mentor. While the presence of Stark is an understandable pairing with the untested Holland, Holland can carry the film on his own. Holland gives his Peter Parker a youthful enthusiasm that is a pleasant departure from the typical angst that usually comes with that character. The supporting cast is just as strong and is the diverse group of teenagers that would actually inhabit a high school in Brooklyn. The superhero genre is well established enough as a money maker that studios are finally becoming comfortable with playing with the genre, most notably seen in this spring’s Logan which dropped Wolverine into a western. Spider-Man:Homecoming refers to the high school dance and references to teen movies are sprinkled throughout. There is a delightful homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and one of the most tense moments of the movie is a twist on a classic teenage rite of passage. The film culminates in a face off between Parker and Michael Keaton’s Vulture. Keaton is able to play the right amount of no nonsense gruffness for a character who isn’t motivated by world domination, but by an understandable blue collar sensibility of feeling like he can never get ahead by playing by the rules. It is a refreshing change from the city-destroying battles that are most common in these types of films. For once a Marvel movie didn’t need to set up the next five films in the franchise in order for me to be excited about the next installment.
Christopher Nolan, master of the lengthy, complicated epic, has made what might be his best film clocking in at a breezy one hour and 46 minutes. Dunkirk tells the story of Allied troops being rescued from the island of Dunkirk, which is surrounded by Nazi German soldiers, by civilians. It contains little dialogue and is set up over three plot lines, an hour in the sky with the air force featuring a mostly masked performance by Tom Hardy, a day in the sea following Mark Rylance and his son taking their leisure boat to bring soldiers to safety, and a harrowing week on the island of Dunkirk where pop star Harry Styles, in his acting debut, is the only recognizable name among this high cheekbone battalion of unknowns. It is tense from its first moments and only builds from there, aided by Hans Zimmer’s clock-ticking score. We know very few of the characters’ names and nothing of their backstory. No one gives a speech about what they are fighting for at home. They are just trying to survive. This is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Nolan trusts that his audience will care about the characters just because we are with them and he is correct in that notion. Mark Rylance will surely enter the Best Supporting Actor discussion come fall, but the real star of Dunkirk is the visuals. War films are often shot with desaturated colors to match the bleakness of war. Nolan bucks that and contrasts the beauty of the location with the brutality of what is happening. Shots of fighter planes swooping through a pink and blue sky are some of the most stunning images I’ve ever seen in film. It also happens to be one of Nolan’s most uplifting films about the resilience of man and the kindness of strangers. I highly recommend seeing it in IMAX as Nolan intended. The images seem unending.
All three of these films are entries into genres that are well worn at this point. All three of them have managed to excite audiences in spite of that by finding new ways to explore those genres. Baby Driver and Spider-Man:Homecoming have already tripled their budgets. Dunkirk, which made $50 million domestically this past weekend, has further established Christopher Nolan as a brand unto himself. Studios are slowly realizing that there is no formula to get viewers into theaters; the only thing that consistently works is originality.
By Chandler Ferrebee