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Ansel Elgort and Lily James: Baby Driver is a musical delight

Ansel Elgort;Lily James

English director Edgar Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver, has been described as exciting Hollywood fare, an action heist film, and a ‘car movie’. According to Ansel Elgort, who plays Baby, it is also a musical. Perhaps just not in the legacy of Singin’ in the Rain.

“I loved [doing Baby Driver]. It reminded me of doing musicals, which are based around choreography. So, the music gave the film pace and structure. If there was a beat to the song, you know the pace of the scene and you really feel it.”

Lily James, who plays Baby’s refreshingly kind girlfriend Debora, concurs with Elgort’s appraisal: “You might have thought [the choreography] would get in the way… But it felt really organic because we were able to harness the momentum it afforded us.”

James’ Debora jokes around with Elgort’s Baby.

Unlike the bulk of Hollywood films churned out each year, Baby Driver is almost solely driven by music. This is immediately apparent, when we first hear the strains of 90’s alt-rock hit ‘Bellbottoms’ thundering from Baby’s headphones. Wright continues the trend with songs from Queen, The Beach Boys, Blur, and Simon and Garfunkel.

Whole scenes of Baby Driver were shaped by music, a novel and inspired decision made by Wright. “The whole cast always had music in their ears; I did through headphones, and the others through the airwaves. Everyone is moving to music, whether it is noticeable or not,” Elgort said.

“In the camera tests, Edgar put on the songs that would be in the film, and we just danced to it. We were basically jiving to it. He made the music feel ingrained in everything we did,” recalled James fondly.

That music pervades Baby Driver is attributable to Elgort’s Baby, who constantly plays music on his iPod to drown out the tinnitus he acquired in a childhood car accident. Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Griff (Jon Bernthal), Baby’s criminal colleagues, berate Baby for this unique dependence. His employer, and ruthless crime boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), accepts it. After all, Baby is the best getaway driver in the business. When Baby wants to get out to make a life with Debora, Doc pulls him back in threateningly with “one final job”. Needless to say, things become more complicated than Baby anticipates.

Foxx’s Bats and Elgort’s Baby on their way to a job.

Thankfully, for Elgort, Foxx is vastly different to his character. “I’m a big Jamie Foxx fan, and I wanted to share my music with him.” On the first day of rehearsal, Elgort received a surprise when Foxx invited him to his home music studio. Elgort even ended up doing a studio session with Foxx and Flea from the Chilli Peppers, “which was friggen awesome.”

Talking about Baby Driver, it was clear James and Elgort had an exceptionally positive experience – betrayed by their leaning forward and quickening speech patterns when recalling on-set antics. “You’re all sharing the music and the moment, which is great,” said James.

It is easy to forget that James, 28, and Elgort, 23, are relative newcomers to the screen; such is their professionalism and mature approach to their work. Nonetheless, they have made the most of their burgeoning careers, with James starring in Downton Abbey, War and Peace and as Cinderella in Cinderella. Elgort has, similarly, starred in a host of successful young-teen films such as the Divergent film series and The Fault in Our Stars.

It is hardly surprising, then, that their chemistry as Baby and Debora adds a vital emotional component to an otherwise car-chase heavy, adrenaline-fueled film. “We didn’t do a chemistry test, as you sometimes do,” James said, “but we had rehearsals where Edgar would get really excited. Everything felt really natural, and I think the music helped that happen.”

As was becoming a common theme, James praised Wright for his “well-written scenes that show how the characters open up and develop. Baby’s opening up to Debbie is a really important and powerful part of the film.” Elgort certainly felt the same appreciation for Wright, with whom he “hit it off. Because he just knows everything about music.”

The same can be said about Wright’s knowledge of cinema, for his films are stacked with nods, gestures and references to other works. When I quizzed James and Elgort about a reference to Taxi Driver, both of them instantly started nodding in affirmation: “We weren’t told. But I’m sure it is [a reference].” Elgort elaborated, “Edgar is always referencing things, but it’s not overly obvious. He doesn’t even tell us as cast members. And it doesn’t feel like he’s taking us out of the movie, like ‘oh my god, that’s Taxi Driver’.”

Wright’s use of cinema history is not purely referential. “When we would do rehearsals with Edgar, he would show us YouTube clips of the best scenes in films. ‘When you tell Doc and the whole group what the plan is, I want you to spit it back like this guy does in this film’,” Elgort told me. Because of that, I think people will watch clips of Baby Driver and say, ‘that scene from Baby Driver is so sick’. You leave it to Edgar Wright to do that.”

Elgort, Wright and James at the Australian premiere of Baby Driver (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Elgort didn’t just do Baby Driver because he admired Wright. He was also motivated by a personal connection to the character of Baby. “When I first read the script, I thought ‘this is so right for me. I could totally play this role’. Like Baby, I have had plenty of sleepless nights while staying up making music.” James interjected, jokingly saying, “I like the music so much that I’m going to do a one-woman cabaret of all of the songs in Baby Driver.”

Upon wrapping up the interview, I discovered that Melbourne was a special place for James and Elgort. James’s brother, a sports reporter, lives here. “He took me to a game at the MCG between Melbourne and Carlton.” Elgort’s connection to Melbourne is a bit more unexpected: “I told Edgar yesterday we were going to Melbourne, and there’s great dance music there – Melbourne Bounce in 2014 was this big thing… like Will Sparks.”

Baby Driver is now in cinemas.

 

 

 

 

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Culture

Review: Lady Macbeth

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William Shakespeare brought the character of Lady Macbeth to life in 1606. She was a manipulative, power-hungry, highly intelligent woman who adopted deception and impassivity in pursuit of power, while utilising her femininity to control men.

While William Oldroyd’s film Lady Macbeth follows Lady Katherine, a very young woman wed off to a middle aged landowner in the late nineteenth century. The film expertly tracks a character’s transformation from a scared, innocent child to a powerful, conniving woman over a short period of time, and a surprisingly short run time. The title even acts as a denomination for what Katherine may become.

At its heart, the film is a coming of age story with a deeply cutting twist. We are introduced to Katherine on her wedding day, where she appears childlike, vulnerable, and out of place in a room filled with wealthy, elderly men. She is an ornament in her husband Alexander’s. This concept is beautifully crafted by the framing and cinematography of Oldroyd and Australian Cinematographer Ari Wegner, which at multiple points resembles Victorian paintings – with Katherine laying in bed, sitting on her window sill or resting on a settee. Katherine is nothing more than still life, something pretty for Alexander to look at.

When Alexander and his overbearing father leave the estate on business matters, Katherine is granted some control and freedom. She begins to find her voice and a confidence arises in her. At first, it is magnificent to see Katherine empowered and maturing, yet it very soon becomes apparent that her carefree liberation has severe consequences on the people by which she is surrounded. The subtle changes in Katherine’s life are meticulously displayed by recurring shots that change slightly each time they appear, eventually presenting an entirely different Katherine to the child shown at the beginning; as she is consumed by her own moral degradation. It is impressive how the film naturally transforms Katherine into a dangerous adult without it ever feeling jarring or unrealistic. There are certain actions she makes that signify the changes in her ethics, but each feels justified by the one that preceded it.

So much of the success of this natural transition is due to a magnificent breakthrough performance from Florence Pough, who is able to portray Katherine with so many dimensions that she never feels fictional. It is easy for a young actor to get lost in such a scenery-chewing role, particularly in a period piece, but Pough is so captivating and understated in her performance that you can’t help but feel you are watching a future legend early in their career.

In fact, the performances all across the board are excellent. Paul Hilton is perfectly despicable as Alexander, while still coming off as human. Cosmo Jarvis plays the land worker Sebastian with boyish charm and, at time,s creepiness. He has one standout, heart-wrenching scene right near the end. Naomi Ackle plays the housemaid Anna with so much grace and pain that gives her character’s arc so much gravity. Even a small role of Alexander’s ward Teddy, played by Anton Palmer is a notable step up from so many child actors.

In its third act the film takes a slight dip, the narrative that has up until now only sped up slows to a near crawl. One plotline is briefly introduced before being swept to the side with no resolution, and while it is only hinted at, it is a major plot point that should have a detrimental effect to the story. However, the tragic and shocking, yet fitting, climax almost makes this forgivable.

Lady Macbeth is a triumph, a film that dramatically drops the Victorian period piece subgenre. Usually stuffed with subpar Jane Austen and Bronte sisters adaptations, this film confidently subverts these conventions with a violent, dramatic character study. I’m sure in the weeks following the film’s release, there will be discussion as to whether Lady Katherine is an antiquated understanding of women’s liberation leading to chaos, or a Feminist heroine. what is undeniable is that this is a powerful piece of filmmaking.

Lady Macbeth is now showing at select cinemas.

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Culture

Review: Film Hawk

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Film Hawk, a documentary directed by JJ Garvine and Tai Parquet, opens with indie filmmaker Kevin Smith standing squarely in
Culture

Macbeth review: A modern take on a veritable classic

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There seems to be a current trend in the modernisation of well-known plays, to rejuvenate and refresh age-old stories for 21st Century audiences. The 2015 Malthouse production of Antigone, as well as Melbourne Theatre Company’s Hamlet and Richard III are notable examples from recent times. MTC’s 2017 production of Macbeth is the latest, and perhaps one of the most distinguished manfiestations of this dramatic approach. Experienced director, Simon Phillips, maintains his striking visual style, which is aided in no small measure by the imposing and multi-faceted sets, costume design and beaming stage  lights.

We first see Macbeth (Hollywood actor Jai Courtney) pillaging the wastelands of Scotland for the Crown which he so devotedly serves. He is incredibly popular amongst his fellow soldiers, and even King Duncan (Robert Menzies) seems to take a liking to him. However, Macbeth’s stable, statesman-like qualities disintegrate once he hears three witches (Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Shareena Clanton, Kamil Ellis) prophesise that he will become King. This sets Macbeth on a crazed path of savagery, power-grabbing and paranoia.

This ‘update’ is evident from the very beginning of the production: the audience was welcomed by actors seated at a vandalised bus stop, an immediate indication that we were far from the middle ages. Indeed, the play appears to be designed to appeal to contemporary cultural sensibilities, as it bears a remarkable resemblance to conventions of the cinema. The window through which the audience views the action almost feels the same as a rectangular widescreen. The heavy musical score functions more as a soundtrack, mostly accentuating the tension and drama of the story, and emphasising its most formidable moments, recalling the work of film composers such as Bernard Hermann. It favours atmosphere over extravagance. Harpsichords and crumhorns are traded in for rumbling soundscapes and a resonant bass drone.

Photo by Jeff Busby.

Similarly, swords and axes are exchanged for automatic rifles and knives, and chain mail for jungle fatigues. The reinterpretation suits the material remarkably well, in all of its darkness and treachery, reflecting the competence of Phillips’s performance decisions, as it is facilitated by the conspicuously achromatic sets and meticulous, effective lighting. In short, the transformation from Shakespearian times to a dark, dystopian future – mired in corruption, uncertainty and division – could not have been pulled off better.

The sets, designed by Shaun Gurton, are supremely detailed. They change and shift with great frequency and dexterity, keeping the audience invested and the momentum steaming along. Each one is distinct, while housing a sense of cohesion to the carefully-formed world of Scotland. Close communication and collaboration with lighting designer Nick Schlieper is evident, as the lights often provide a point of focus in the field of view – the burning car in the opening scene and lit candles at an extravagant dinner held by Macbeth are prime examples.

Of course, the good qualities of the play are not limited to these accompanying elements, which augment its more obvious triumphs.

Jai Courtney gives an energised performance as the scheming, yet disturbed Macbeth, capturing both qualities extremely well. He is at times impassioned, and at others, deeply anguished. Geraldine Hakewill’s Lady Macbeth is a highlight of the production: cold-blooded, scheming; and simultaneously sensual and sophisticated. Both performances capture the indelible rhythms of Shakespearian dialogue while, correspondingly, being fresh – sometimes spitting out lines with a prominent Australian twang. One feels the role of Macbeth is a much needed one for Courtney, who over the past few years has spent his time in loud, crass Hollywood tentpoles such as Terminator: Genisys and A Good Day to Die Hard.

MTC’s production of Macbeth is a visual and visceral feast. The considerable efforts of all involved – the director, set designer, lighting director, and performers – are bound to weigh heavily on its audiences. The production allows itself to be accessible to those unacquainted with the work, and also provides something worthwhile to those well-versed in the superlative realm of Shakespearian theatre. In all, an expansive and adventurous production that doesn’t stray too far from its material.

Photo by Jeff Busby.

Macbeth is showing at MTC until 15 July. Tickets can be purchased on the MTC website.

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