Film Review: Last Night in Soho

Here we have a movie that comes from Edgar Wright, a director known for light horror movies that spoof the genre while obviously enjoying it. Last Night in Soho doesn’t spoof as much as revel, and while it clearly establishes a unique perspective on a narrative that has all but died in horror/mystery movies, its second half completely implodes as it goes off the rails, until Diana Rigg finally emerges from the shadows where she’s been lurking to deliver her final performance and reel in the mess and bring it back home into a cohesive but messy close.

The movie introduces us to Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a fashion designer wannabe obsessed with the 60s who gets accepted to go to London to study her passion. Her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) warns Ellie about the city, mainly because she fears Ellie’s talent for seeing spirits may take over her as it did her mother, who has since died tragically. However, Ellie promises she can fend for herself, and before we know it, she’s off to London where she meets a bitchy roommate (Synnove Karlsen) and a potential love interest (Michael Ajao).

When her living conditions prove to be incompatible she answers an ad for a room for rent. The landlady who runs the townhome is Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), another grandmotherly type who lays down the law. Ellie, still wide-eyed about London, assures Ms. Collins she will have no trouble being a tenant. However, that night, as she goes to sleep, she wakes up in the middle of 1960s Swinging London and has inexplicably walked into someone else’s reality and is merely a spectator.

That someone turns out to be Sandie (Anna Taylor-Joy). Sandie struts around London with an exuberance and self-assured confidence that would make Holly Golightly take note. However, with such females, bell that surface is a young woman longing to make her mark on the world as a singer. Sandie wanders and latches onto the Rialto, a nightclub where singers like Cilla Clark perform. She meets Jack (Matt Smith), a dashing but slightly older man, who sees potential and gives her a spot. If only Sandie would know what awaits her, she would have turned tail and run away.

Here is where the movie shines the best. It moves effortlessly from the past to the present, and often blurs the lines between the two. In including Ellie in what seems to be a mirror world of Sandie’s, Wright tells delivers a clever little piece about time folding in on itself, and that’s not an easy trick to achieve. Through Ellie, we get a look into Sandie’s life and this begins to affect Ellie in her own life. Off comes Ellie’s mousy brown color and retro 90s look, and Ellie transforms herself into a blond with a penchant for cooler outfits. The change starts to inform Ellie’s fashion sense, which also catches the eye of her teacher who sees great potential.

But this is a mystery after all, and Ellie’s school designs take a back seat to the meatier story about to unfold. Every time Ellie wakes up as Sandie, she witnesses how the initial shimmer and glamor starts to reveal the cracks in its surface. Soon it becomes clear that Sandie has walked into a trap of human trafficking and is in some form of imminent danger from Jack and the men she is forced to sleep with to pay her dues. [And with this, Last Night in Soho also delivers its social message to the public.]

Meanwhile, Ellie starts to lose her grip and devolve into something else. Like all horror-movie conduits, Ellie becomes obsessed with somehow breaking the invisible glass that separates her from Sandie and possibly changing Sandie’s destiny. One particularly horrific vision informs Ellie that Sandie met a horrible fate. Trying to get to the core of the mystery (and possibly rectify it) she crosses the path of an old man (Terence Stamp) who may know more than what he is willing to disclose. And what of the men who went missing in Sandie’s neighborhood during the years after Sandie’s horrific murder?

I’m a bit torn with this movie. For a horror movie lover who also loves a good mystery and parallel times, this one is a crowd pleaser that will deliver on all aspects. Last Night in Soho‘s first 30 minutes are truly glorious — restrained and greyish where it needs to be, because we’re in Ellie’s rather sheltered reality. Once it ventures into the 60s, the movie explodes in color reminiscent of Technicolor and that soundtrack is a killer. Anna Taylor-Joy emerges as a pure creation of the era, with her hair and dresses. You truly believe she was one of the many carefree girls parading through London and possibly catching David Hemming’s misogynistic eye as Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills did in Blow Up.

Diana Rigg in her final screen performance.

The main issue that I had with Last Night in Soho is the fact that this being a mystery with horror elements, it never quite knows what to do with the horror aspect. Wright relies too much on apparitions and these detracted from the entire movie if not outright ruined it for me. The movie has a Broadway feel to it, where everything has to be telegraphed to the farthest seat in the house with loud, garish brush strokes and Giallo imagery. Then the movie takes a hard left turn, and while it is surprising, it also doesn’t entirely convince. At best, it looks tacked on, but then, many horror movies have tacked-on endings, so who am I to judge?

Thomasin McKensie is a solid actress, but the script has her come apart at the seams. She starts the movie so natural and self-confident, but by the end she’s been reduced to talking in whispers and barely even there. It just didn’t work for me. I wish that her character would have been less a Shelly Duvall and more a heroine. That kind of simpering, horror novel female has not been seen since the 60s, although perhaps, because Ellie is so obsessed with this decade, she actually filters women’s behavior of the time.

Anna Taylor-Joy has the stronger part of the two despite her co-starring screen time. Whenever she enters the movie, it takes on an entirely different dimension, and her character arc is tragic right up until the “What happened to her, really?” moment. As a plus, the movie gives many icons of the era in their twilight performances — Diana Rigg and Terence Stamp, for one. Margaret Nolan, a Bond girl of the time, shows up as a bartender. All throw in some much needed

class into this movie. Other than that, this is candy-colored horror with a strong Signet Paperback feel to it, and that, while not a bad thing, is also, not a good thing.

VOD Review: No Dormirás (You Shall Not Sleep)

Goya famously once quoted, “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.” Stephen King once used this famous quote in a modified form: “This inhuman place breeds human monsters.” Gustavo Hernandez, a director who scored a strong debut with La casa muda (The Silent House) in 2010, seems to have wanted to compose an elegy to the first (this being an Argentinian-Uruguayan-Spanish co-production) with centering the story around an experiment. The experiment in question has actors stepping into Alma Bohm’s (Belen Rueda) drama team and subjecting themselves to sleep deprivation in order to find some truth in performance. At least, this is what I think this is; the movie is rather ill-defined in what it wants, but one would never notice because the first 45 minutes are mostly setup and not much else.

In defense of the movie’s premise, experiments in sleep deprivation were an actual thing. During the 1970s and 80s, researchers subjected participants to sessions in which they remained awake for extended periods of time. The goal was to see how long the human body could tolerate hours and hours of sleeplessness, and how this would affect the mind. When we step into the movie we see a young woman (Maria Zabay) wandering disheveled, through a darkened hallway. She seems to be drawn to something as-yet-unseen. All the while, we listen to soft yet urgent rustling sounds. The woman, who we learn is an actress of certain prestige named Marlene, comes upon a sinister-looking old woman frantically brushing her hair, her eyes locked into an unseen force, terrified. When Marlene leaves she is suddenly attacked by a horrific creature, it’s face obscured by a gauze. We then realize Marlene is the woman brushing her hair. She is a part of Alma Bohm’s bizarre experiment, and when the camera slowly zooms on Bohm’s sadistically satisfied face we know exactly what we are stepping into.

It’s a pity that Bianca (Eva de Dominici), is oblivious to the trap she’s about to walk into. An aspiring actress of notable talent, she gets bamboozled into participating in Bohm’s experiment. Bohm is using the entire sleep deprivation to conduct a performance based on a mother suffering from postpartum depression who attempted to kill her infant child. She gets pitted against her friend Cecilia (Natalia de Molina), who also happens to be a professional rival. Bianca has a backstory that gets some exploration. Her father (Miguel Angel Maciel) has his own demons that he is unable to put to rest. When his mental lapse almost kills Bianca, he commits himself to a mental facility. In a way, Bianca follows suit as she walks into a former mental hospital that is now Bohm’s headquarters.

Much of You Shall Not Sleep‘s first half is set-up peppered with slight jump scares that don’t ring as earned. Really, the hand placed on a shoulder, or a ghoulish face suddenly appearing, complete with the stinger? Snore, yawn, no. It is, however, rather interesting to see Dominici, de Molina, and Rueda interact amongst each other, with Rueda playing a cross between late-period Joan Crawford and Philip Zimbardo with relished bitchiness. The girls are interchangeable — both complement each other as ingenues — but Dominici has the meatier role as the wait trapped in a Gothic enclave trying to solve a mystery.

The second half of the movie ramps up the horror, but just a bit. Too much time gets spent in narratives that don’t really correlate with the story or the horror ambiance. Bianca manages to leave the place, and her departure serves as an interesting yet also uninspired choice by the director. Is she truly out of the shadows or still “trapped” in the scary hospital? I’ll leave that for you to decide, and it’s really nothing clever. However, the movie decides to pull out all the stops and disclose what it is really about in a series of revelations that would make Rosemary’s Baby blush and M Night Shyamalan proud. That in itself is not a compliment. Perhaps it may have worked on paper, but on screen, it looks like a cop-out. And those jump-scares just keep on coming.

You Shall Not Sleep has an intriguing premise and enough ambiance to warrant a view, but is an overreaching mess that will not merit its run time. Hernandez could have made a disturbing psychodrama of identity and yielded chilling effects and memorable performances from everyone involved, but instead goes the way of tired genre tropes and telegraphing it’s own secret way before it actually arrives.

The Souvenir, Part Two: Film Review

Joanna Hogg’s new movie was always going to happen. Too much was left unresolved in her confessional The Souvenir for it to be a stand-alone movie about a young woman based on her younger self travelling through the dark side of a codependent relationship only to emerge bruised, haunted, but intact. Even so, Hogg could have ended Julie Harte’s tale there and leave us to put in the pieces of where the character would go next. She could have revisited it 10, 15 years later, but by then, she would have necessitated different actors… or tell a completely different story. And that would be fine all the same.

As it stands, Hogg took no time to get back in the director’s seat to develop the Part Two of The Souvenir, and it looks and feels as if she had in fact filmed it concurrent to her earlier film. We spare no time in re-entering Julie’s world. Anthony (Tom Burke) is dead, and she is still very much trying to figure what the hell just happened, and why is she, not he, still alive. Wanting to make sense of it all, while working on a documentary that now seems to be escaping her grasp and interest, she embarks on a series of visits to perhaps find closure. What actually takes place, however, is that Julie starts to move into a new project, one that will be her thesis in order to graduate, but one that she is advised against. It is the story of her own experience, seen through her own directorial eyes.

Most filmmakers who engage in autobiographic movies run the risk of turning their story into an exercise in auto-fetishization with a strong inclination towards self-pleasuring through indulgence. Not many directors have managed to successfully pull this off — Fellini may very well be the only one who not just did so, but single handedly pulled off in making one of the most influential movies of the Twentieth century, bar none. Almodovar comes as a close second. Hitchcock, a third, and even his incursions were mostly referential, with his narratives of the wrong man on the run, or his unhealthy obsession with Kim Novak.

The greater bulk of Part Two is seeing Julie attempt to recreate events almost identical to the ones that transpired in her own life. In doing this approach, which now includes having film school mates Garance (Ariane Labed) be a virtual stand-in for Julie (herself a stand-in for Hogg), she threatens to become a bit unglued, and unfocused. All throughout, she continues to receive ample support from her understanding parents (played by Tilda Swinton and non-actor James Spencer Ashworth, both who manages to make strong impressions with relatively small parts).

The Souvenir offers no surprises, no plot twists, no sudden, dramatic reveal. Early on, a plot development involving Julie’s period gets dropped in a rather comical manner in a scene involving Charlie Heaton of Stranger Things). It does offer an insight into the world of film making, as it presents not just the details on how scenes are constructed, but in Hogg’s own universe, which is a set made to resemble her own apartment, to replicate in fiction the event from her past. We also get to see Julie struggle with the task of being a director. She comes off as mousy to a fellow classmate now auteur-in-the-works (played to acid tongue perfection by Richard Ayoade). Other members of her crew start to struggle with the movie she is trying to create while all she can come up with is, “Well, this happened.”

Slowly, but surely, something does happen to Julie, and it is so subtle it goes by unnoticed for a long time. Because Hogg never gives us too much information on Julie’s private life but keeps us firmly planted in her day to day we only get snippets of memory coming together to form a collage. That the product she turns out is drenched in aspects of art-house moviemaking and thus, artifice, shows the ways in which a creative effort can go when some directions don’t pan out. The scene in which she inserts herself — which may or not be what she actually presented; well never know — is almost too meta, but it is necessary. To have her intended actors play out the climax of her heartbreak would have been like having Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg dance to the rhythm of “Unchained Melody”. It might have been what happened, yes, but film is reality through fantasy and escape.

The Souvenir Part Two is a great film in how it presents itself. Nothing is constructed. Everything flows from one scene to the next even when we hear an 80s pop song get cut mid-play. Events transpire in the most natural way ever, which reminds me of the cinema of Eric Rohmer. The only difference that it has to its predecessor is it’s tone. Much of the previous was filmed in muted tones that gave the movie and aura of austerity. This time around, the tones are more sunlit, brighter, more colorful, completely natural. There is a subtle comic air to her sequel which completely lifts the movie up from its rather drab setting. Honor Swinton-Byrne’s scenes with Swinton elder do not even look acted at all. I would believe this is how mother and daughter behave around each other at all times.

Julie’s story now comes to an end, at least for now unless Hogg decides to revisit her one more time. In the meantime, Julie has grown up, made a movie, and asserted herself in a way that would seem too subtle, but in her, it comes off as completely a part of her own character. It still remains a bit sad that she had to go through so much so soon, but a life well lived is a life that has a story to tell. Julie may have seen the dark side of the moon, but now she takes off running over a field of wildflowers in pure ecstasy.